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Albemarle investing more in broadband access efforts

Albemarle County is further expanding its efforts to help extend affordable and reliable internet access to residents.

The proposed Fiscal Year 2022 budget includes funding to support a new county Broadband Accessibility and Affordability Office, which will work to help provide support to community members and expand infrastructure.

The budget includes $286,376 for two full-time employees and related operating costs, as well as $250,000 for an access and affordability program.

The office will open in May, as the board in March appropriated $100,000 for startup costs for the office and $250,000 for access and affordability program startup costs and help with near-term pandemic support. Those funds came from a reserve that was created when the county used federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act of 2020 Coronavirus Relief Fund money to reimburse county public safety pay.

“There’s a lot of work ahead of us. There’s a lot of opportunity ahead of us too to make a significant difference,” Assistant County Executive Trevor Henry said during a recent budget work session.

Last week, the county announced that Michael Culp will be the director of the new office, effective May 1. Culp has served as Albemarle’s director of information technology for 18 years, and has been working with the broadband authority, serving as its chief administrative officer.

The new broadband office will be made up of Culp and an analyst position. The office will be part of the county executive leadership team, as is Albemarle’s Office of Equity and Inclusion.

“There’s a strong leadership and partnering need that will be managed by the director, and a strong connection to the broadband authority,” Henry said. “Leadership across our county, all departments will be, I believe, involved in the success of this program … I think the director will have a steady hand at the wheel to try to direct all of this work at that level.”

In his new role, Culp, will coordinate efforts with the county and the state and work with area internet service providers.

The analyst/operations position will take citizen responses, track data and support the broadband authority’s meetings, among other things.

The county and the broadband authority, mostly under Culp’s leadership, has been successful in obtaining state grant money for broadband projects.

Most recently, Albemarle and CenturyLink were successful in getting a $2,276,110 Virginia Telecommunication Initiative grant to construct approximately 100 miles of fiber-optic cable that will provide broadband access to 1,675 locations, including 455 businesses within the following areas of the county: Box Holly/Taylors Gap, Campbell/Cobham, Milton Ills, Old Garth Heights, Snow Hill Lane, Tilman Road/Meriweather Hill, Advance Mills/Fray Road, Gilbert Station Road and Jones Mills Road.

In terms of the affordability program, the county plans to assist community members with access to state and federal broadband affordability funding, add funding to current county programs to segment and provide near-term support for offsetting expenses. It also will consider a broadband affordability support model for homes located farther from main roads.

At the broadband authority’s meeting Monday, Culp said the office plans to promote the Federal Communications Commission’s Emergency Broadband Benefit program, which is designed to help households struggling to pay for internet service during the pandemic by providing a discount for broadband services. According to the FCC, a start date for the program has not yet been set.

Culp said there are a number of other affordability issues going on and the office will present a plan and updates to the broadband authority as the affordability program gets released.

“It’s important that we understand how to get broadband out to those who typically can’t afford it,” he said. “Whether that’s in the rural areas or the development areas, we’re working on ways to make it more available and more affordable.”

What the affordability program will look like long-term is still being worked out, Henry told supervisors at their work session.

“We would like to bring back a program design and recommendation to the board sometime late spring or early summer, but really looking at a post-pandemic lens on what this program would be,” he said.

Originally, the county had plans to include funding for broadband infrastructure, such as utilizing local money to get state grants, in the budget and to be appropriated this current fiscal year, but it now plans to use $3 million of future American Rescue Plan funding.

The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to hold a public hearing Wednesday on the FY22 budget and the 2021 real estate tax rate. Supervisors are then scheduled to approve a budget and set the tax rate on May 5.

More information on the budget process can be found at albemarle.org/government/budget.

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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