By Carol Vaughn —
A crowd of around 70 — socially distanced and wearing masks — filled the Greenbackville fire hall Thursday, Sept. 10, to voice concerns about inadequate internet service in Captain’s Cove.
Virtual schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic has increased concerns about internet access in the community of around 1,200 near Greenbackville, according to speakers.
Others spoke about teleworking and senior citizens’ need to access telemedicine during the pandemic.
Accomack County Supervisor Ron Wolff, Accomack County School Board member Edward Taylor, and Accomack County Administrator Mike Mason were at the forum. Mason also is on the Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority board.
Wolff and Taylor recently received numerous emails from Cove residents concerned about inadequate internet service, resulting in them holding the meeting.
Additionally, residents have contacted state and federal elected officials with their complaints, Taylor said.
The property owners association board of directors was invited to the meeting, Wolff said.
Residents asked the county officials to request Attorney General Mark Herring investigate actions of the POA board of directors.
“Can the county…somehow get a forensic audit…to make sure everything’s on the up and up?” asked John Ward.
Joseph Mendonca asked that the county attorney send a letter to Herring about residents’ complaints.
Jenny Davis, a Shore native who moved to the Cove in May after living and working away from the Shore, said she specifically asked the general manager about internet access before moving there.
She works from home full time for a software company in the automotive industry.
“I was told…that we would be having fiber internet soon,” she said, adding she is paying $150 per month for satellite internet and another $100 a month for a wifi hotspot.
“I think we know that there are issues in the Cove with leadership. … The issue now with COVID and the social distancing and the remote learning is that our board’s practices are impacting children in a negative way,” said resident Jim Lukens, adding, “…I don’t know what to ask, what this group here can do to apply pressure to this board leadership outside of the Cove, because it’s going to have to come from public and/or private partnerships pushing our leadership at the Cove, which at this point I fully believe is corrupt. And we need to have that brought to the light of day.”
Wolff, who has been on the board of supervisors 17 years, said he is “very, very aware” of problems at Captain’s Cove.
“They started the first day I was elected,” he said.
Wolff said Accomack County does not provide internet service as a governmental function. Mason said it can not under the Dillon Rule, under which local governments are limited to powers expressly granted them by their state.
Telecommunications is one area the state expressly prohibits counties from offering, he said.
“Captain’s Cove receives all the services that everywhere else in the county receives,” Wolff said.
Sill, lack of high-speed internet service in the county in general is “overwhelmingly” the most frequent complaint made on the county website, Mason said.
Of Accomack County’s 5,000 public school students, 112 live in Captain’s Cove, according to speakers. Additionally, 25 teachers live there, according to an email residents sent Wolff.
A company — identifed by one speaker as Broadband Connect, a Maryland LLC — signed a contract earlier this year to provide broadband service in Captains Cove, but has been unable to come up with up to $5 million in financing, Wolff said he was told in a telephone conversation in late August with Jim Silfie, a POA board member.
Mason gave an overview of the Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority, which initially had the goal to construct the backbone infrastructure “and then last-mile services would be delivered by the private sector.”
More recently, ESVBA in a pilot project successfully provided residential service in Harborton.
The authority later issued $5 million in bonds to expand its fiber-to-the-home network, starting with incorporated towns.
That work is still going on.
Communications company Charter/Spectrum also has begun “turning up its network throughout the Shore,” Mason said.
“Frankly, what’s really depressing to me is, there is a lot of overbuilding going on now. There are areas where we have not only one provider, but maybe three. … But then you get into other areas were there is zero,” he said.
A study several years ago found it would cost $40 million to completely build out a broadband network on the Shore, Mason said.
The Virginia Telecommunications Initiative, administered by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, is the main state grant program for broadband initiatives, but requires a partnership between a political entity and a private sector company.
The ESVBA is a public authority, not a private sector company.
A total of $19 million was available statewide from that program this year, according to Mason.
According to Wolff, at least some of the responsibility for delays in bringing high-speed internet to Captain’s Cove lies with the developers.
The ESVBA’s fiber optic infrastructure “runs right down Stateline Road” into Greenbackville, Wolff said, adding, “When they did that, they asked if they could come in and service the Cove. … Discussions took place. … The developer wants a piece of the action to get into the Cove. … A lot of this stems from the use of a utility easement in the Cove.”
The easements were granted and platted when Captain’s Cove was laid out back in the 1960s, he said.
During a second conversation with Silfie on Sept. 8, Wolff said he was told the contract with the other provider was still on the table, but the board also is now in early stages of talks with Spectrum/Charter.
Wolff had heard the developer wants 6% perpetually to allow an internet provider to use the utility easement, “so I asked Mr. Silfie that,” he said.
Having high-speed internet would increase property values, “so he (the developer) is going to make his money on the back end,” Wollf argued.
Wolff later spoke with ANEC executive Butch Williamson; someone at the State Corporation Commission; and a person in the Governor’s office who administers VATI grants — asking all whether they knew of any utility company that had to pay to use an easement.
All said they did not.
The county attorney researched the matter and replied to Wolff’s inquiry, saying a new state law, effective July 1, says the owner of a utility easement may not charge for its use, subject to certain exceptions.
“If a contract now is executed today, or any time after July 1, the developer can not charge for use of that utility easement. So that’s a big deal,” Wolff said.
The county attorney is waiting to receive a list of complaints and grievances from Captain’s Cove residents, “so she will have a basis for her letter to the AG’s office,” Wolff said Monday via email.