LYNCHBURG — Invigorated with additional federal aid money, the Nelson County Board of Supervisors recently allocated $1.125 million for Firefly Fiber Broadband to use for immediate broadband expansion in the county.
A proposal by Firefly — which is owned by the members of Central Virginia Electric Cooperative — to complete a total of six projects in the areas of Shipman, Arrington, Gladstone, Piney River and Colleen would provide reliable, high-speed internet to more than 400 homes and businesses off the CVEC system by Dec. 31.
“We understand that there are challenges that the pandemic has brought and really emphasized the need for broadband everywhere …. Never before has there been as much reason to have rural broadband available everywhere,” Gary Wood, CEO of Firefly and CVEC, told members of the Nelson County Broadband Authority at a meeting of the authority.
The partnership between Firefly and the county came about two weeks before Nelson County Public Schools students returned to class in an entirely virtual format for the first nine weeks.
The expansion calls for the installation of about 16 miles of fiber optic cable, according to a news release from Firefly.
That money, made available through a second round of CARES Act funding, brings the county’s total pool of money to more than $2.6 million. The decision on how to allocate CARES Act funding rested with the county’s Board of Supervisors.
Speaking to members of the authority ahead of the Board of Supervisors meeting, Wood said that to use funds made available through the CARES Act, the deadline for these fiber projects would need to coincide with the deadline localities have to spend the money, which is the end of 2020.
“For us to get this built by [Dec. 31], things have got to move right away,” Wood said. “… If you want to do it this year with these funds, it’s got to happen right now.”
Wood told authority board members that reaching homes and businesses off the CVEC system will not affect prioritizing co-op customers.
“The co-op and Firefly are focused on the fiber build first, and we will not stop that and we will not slow it down and we won’t put anything in front of it, but if we can do that and also do something else, why would you not do the other thing if it doesn’t slow anything up,” Wood said.
When selecting the projects, Wood said it was a combination of areas that already have working fiber, can be completed by year’s end, have the highest number of potential users and areas with low or moderate income. These projects also allow for future expansion.
“This gives us great potential to take a huge percentage of our Appalachian Power Company clients who will not have access in these areas, and these particular areas that we’re talking about are of a lower to moderate income. That is a reality and they don’t have many options, so I think this is a wonderful next step,” said Jesse Rutherford, authority chairman and Board of Supervisors member.
Also during the authority’s meeting, Wood said the CVEC board approved of accelerating its timeline to complete its fiber build. Wood said with additional staff and extra measures, Firefly anticipates finishing its build-out and offering broadband services throughout its entire 14-county footprint by July 2022, a year ahead of the company’s original five-year plan.
Firefly is projected to be in the black for the first time this year. The company’s financial stability will allow for future builds off the CVEC system, as well, Wood said. Initially, Firefly wasn’t anticipated to turn a profit until after the first seven years.
“It’s a good sign that we’re profitable and will be sooner than we anticipated and that we’ll be able to move a little quicker into some of those areas,” Wood said.
During supervisors’ deliberations on uses for the CARES Act money, board Chairman Tommy Harvey emphasized the importance of committing money to Firefly for broadband expansion.
“We really need to make that commitment to the co-op, that is going to touch more lives and do more for everything in Nelson County,” said Harvey, who also sits on the broadband authority board. “We are on a fast track and we need to keep this train rolling.”
Wood said in an email that design started on the projects Aug. 12 and Firefly soon will announce planned construction dates and will notify the hundreds of households and businesses that will have access to broadband through the expansions.