The Albemarle Broadband Authority is taking steps to bring fiber broadband internet to almost all areas of the county.
At a recent meeting, the authority board signed a memorandum of understanding that could form the basis of a partnership similar to those that are bringing high-speed internet to Nelson and Louisa counties.
The board voted to sign the MOU with Firefly Fiber Broadband, a subsidiary of Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, Dominion Energy and Rappahannock Electric Cooperative to explore bringing fiber broadband to nearly all of unserved Albemarle County.
CVEC President and CEO Gary Wood said he estimated that they would be able to get to 99.5% of unserved locations in the county.
“There’s a little area right at the Blue Ridge Parkway up near northwest Albemarle; it’s about a three-mile fiber construction to pick up three or four buildings that are on the parkway. It’s a very expensive extension for a fairly small number,” he said. “The state staff use the 97% guideline — I think we’ll be well above 97%, we may be at 99.5%, but there may be a few individual locations there that we leave up to SpaceX to pick up.”
In December, Nelson County officials announced a project with Firefly to make broadband service available to every home and business in the county by the end of 2024. In early March, officials in Louisa County announced a proposed partnership with the energy utilities to “ensure high-speed internet access is available to all of the homes and businesses in the county.”
Nelson is providing $1.25 million for its universal access project, while Louisa previously earmarked $15 million to incentivize the deployment of end-user fiber countywide.
Wood said they’ve worked with Dominion and Rappahannock to develop a plan to create a proposal for universal service in the parts of both of the entities’ service areas that do not have broadband. They said they will also now be able to cover the American Electric Power/Appalachian Power service areas in Albemarle.
“With that, we really don’t have a partnership with AEP in that they’re providing a lot of benefit, other than they have agreed to give us priority in doing make-ready work and trying to coordinate any system improvements that would provide some full changeouts and lower our costs of make-ready,” Wood said.
In the REC areas, Wood said Firefly would be in charge of the construction. REC will pay for it and own the fiber on their poles, but will lease it to Firefly. In Dominion areas, Dominion will build the major fiber backbones and give Firefly access to run service to homes or build other laterals. With AEP, Wood said Firefly will build in the telecommunication space and provide service on their poles.
Later this year Firefly plans to submit an application to the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI) with a regional plan for broadband service. Dominion will have to take its proposal to build to the State Corporation Commission for approvals.
This summer, the Albemarle Broadband Authority and Firefly would work to identify the unserved areas and come back with the costs for the project, and what potential sources of funding are available.
“Right now, VATI is the easiest one to see,” Wood said. “And then we’ll talk about what type of county contribution might make us most likely to win the VATI grant.”
If the project is successful in obtaining the VATI grant, which has a three-year project timeline, Wood said they could finish as soon as spring of 2025.
CVEC and Firefly have been successful in getting VATI grants in the past, including in partnership with Albemarle in 2019 for a $301,748 grant to connect its Midway substation.
In 2018, Albemarle entered into an agreement with CVEC for $550,000 to expand fiber to its customers in the county.
CVEC, through the Rural Electric Cooperative Consortium, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX were the winning Rural Digital Opportunity Fund bidders in Albemarle.
Wood said Monday that when they started providing broadband, they anticipated 35% of customers would sign up within the first two years of availability.
“We were doing better than that and then COVID happened, and now it’s much better,” he said. “So we are typically seeing over 50% take rates when we first move into an area, and we’ve had areas in Albemarle County where we’ve exceeded 70%.”
Broadband authority members were supportive of the project and signing the first phase of the MOU.
“I want to emphasize this is a big deal,” said authority board member Waldo Jaquith. “This is the first time that there is a near future we can envision in which we don’t need a broadband authority, and that’s the future I want.”