After years of stopgap measures to get students and their families online, area school divisions now have several projects underway to connect virtually with their students.
Within three years, most localities in Central Virginia should have universal broadband access and fiber-optic internet, thanks to an infusion of federal dollars in the last two years.
“That’s going to be a tremendous asset to so many in our community, not just students, but families and adults as well,” Louisa County Superintendent of Schools Doug Straley said of the fiber expansion.
Expanding broadband access was a priority for school systems and localities before the pandemic and some even built their own fiber networks or purchased more equipment. But the pandemic brought the importance of reliable internet access up close and personal as internet availability drove some lesson plans.
When COVID closed schools, officials worked to give students the technology needed to learn remotely and made internet access for students a priority. Some districts provided hotspots that use cell phone connections to get online.
Since the spring of 2020, hundreds of millions of dollars in state and federal funds have been given out to expand broadband access with Virginia lawmakers allocating $700 million in federal pandemic aid in 2021.
In December 2021, former Gov. Ralph Northam announced a $79 million grant to a regional broadband project that will provide residents in 13 Central Virginia counties with access to fiber broadband service.
The money made a big difference in Albemarle County and other localities, said Mike Culp, director of the county’s Broadband Accessibility and Affordability Office.
Albemarle County created that office last year. Partly funded by federal stimulus funds, it works with area internet providers and helps manage construction projects.
About 90% of Albemarle County students have access to the internet, but the county does not include hotspot use in that number.
“[A hotspot] is a temporary solution to provide minimal connectivity; it’s not broadband connectivity,” Albemarle chief technology officer Christine Diggs told school board members in March. “We’re very encouraged that the county has established a broadband office.”
Diggs said her team meets regularly with Culp’s office to provide them with student data and areas where there’s no connectivity.
“Building out the broadband is a long, slow process,” Diggs said.
Charlottesville City Schools plan to use federal stimulus funds and other sources to build a private wide-area network connecting all division facilities and devices.
“The private fiber network will position Charlottesville City Schools to be able to respond to the evolving and ever-changing landscape of technology,” said Pat Cuomo, director of technology for the city schools. “Having a dedicated fiber network for the schools will allow us to support all of our current and future internet- and network-dependent resources for years to come.”
Constructing the network would cost about $2.8 million, most of it covered by federal funding from a Federal Communication Commission program. No local money is expected to be needed for the project.
Charlottesville is planning to start building the network this summer in order to have it running by July 2023.
“Driving on the roads, you can imagine getting bottlenecked during a rush hour. The same is true on the internet with fiber-optic networks,” Cuomo told board members in February. “A public network gets bogged down over time, and that impacts services that we’re trying to provide to our schools.”
He expects the private network to save the division about 35% in recurring costs or about $4,400 a month.
Cuomo said the pandemic gave the school division a better understanding of technology resources of its families.
“While many of our families had access to the internet, we learned that there were a lot of families who did not have access to reliable internet,” he said.
‘Not going back’
For many area school systems, the pre-pandemic standard of students leaving their laptops and computers at school and not having internet at home is forever gone. Louisa County and Orange County school divisions let students take their computers home in the early days of the pandemic, and that practice will continue.
Mark Outten, who was the Orange County school division’s director of technology throughout the pandemic, said the at-home access for devices was a game changer.
Louisa County schools officials agree.
“I don’t know that’s something that we’d want to put back in the bottle,” said Dave Childress, the director of technology for Louisa County Public Schools.
The change, however, creates greater wear and tear on tablets and laptops. In fall 2021, Louisa County received more than $1 million in federal funding to help with equipment purchases and other pandemic-related technology needs.
As part of that batch of funding, Orange County received about $630,000, which went toward paying for about 250 to 300 families’ internet service through the end of the school year.
The division worked with FiberLync, a fiber-optic internet service provider run by the Orange County Broadband Authority, to identify low-income families without internet and connect them to the company’s service.
FiberLync was officially created in May 2020 and started connecting households in spring 2021. So far, the company has about 2,200 customers.
The division’s support also includes covering FiberLync’s installation fee, which is $500, Outten said. The collaboration between the school division and FiberLync was a win-win, Outten said, because families got internet and the new company got customers.
By 2025, Albemarle County officials are hoping every household in the county will have access to fiber for internet.
Jason Inofuentes, the county’s broadband program manager, said fiber-optic cables provide reliably high-speed internet and are the preferred option for universal broadband coverage. For the next round of grant-funded expansion, the county is looking at areas where there’s a demonstrated need for high-speed access.
Before the pandemic, Culp estimated that 40% of households had fiber. That number should be up to 60% by the end of this year, Culp said.
“It is really the future-proof technology, meaning it’s one of the only technologies out there that’s not going to have a defined shelf life,” Culp said. “It continues to improve and will be there longer than most.”
Several projects are underway to meet the goal of coverage by 2025. The largest is the 13-county effort led by the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission.
“The pandemic really illuminated for everyone that it really isn’t a luxury nice to have good internet, but really a critical need,” Albemarle spokeswoman Emily Kilroy said.
TJPDC is working with Firefly Fiber Broadband, a subsidiary of the Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, on the Regional Internet Service Expansion project to bring service to 36,283 underserved homes, businesses and other locations.
The project also includes a formal partnership with Dominion Energy Virginia and the Rappahannock Electric Cooperative as well as funding from counties involved.
Culp said building out the fiber networks will take several years.
“Some people will be in that final third year, so it’s possible that a number of our community members are going to have to wait until spring of 2025 to receive service,” he said. “Now that doesn’t stop us from looking at other opportunities and alternatives to try to expand and be faster. So we’re hopeful that we’ll find creative ways to move the ball forward.”
The county is working with Firefly to prioritize areas based on income need.
Straley, with Louisa County schools, said the percentage of families with access to the internet improves every month as the fiber construction continues.
“We can’t wait for this project to be complete,” he said. “I appreciate the foresight of our leaders in the community to really go after this broadband connectivity for every home in our community. I think for a rural community, that’s huge.”
Until it’s finished, Straley said the school division will continue working to decrease the digital divide. That means solar-powered wireless units built during the pandemic will stay in use.
Placed in parking lots and other areas throughout the county, the units were open to students and community members who needed to access the internet.
Childress said they have run into some maintenance issues or the need to adjust the units’ placement as changes are made to cell towers.
“We’re constantly monitoring that,” he said.
Reporter Allison Wrabel contributed to this report.