By Stefanie Jackson – When Northampton supervisors held a public hearing May 25 on fiscal year 2021 budget amendments totaling nearly $29 million, citizens banded together to call for investment in broadband access for approximately 30% of Eastern Shore households that have poor or no internet.
Peg Volk, of Cherrystone Road, near Cheriton, emphasized that high-speed internet is no longer optional, it’s “one of the requirements of life now – to be connected.”
Northampton will receive nearly $2.3 million in federal aid from the American Rescue Plan (ARP), which can be used for infrastructure needs like broadband.
Arthur Upshur, president of Citizens for a Better Eastern Shore (CBES), asserted the ARP funds should be focused on extending wired broadband service throughout the county.
The Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority (ESVBA) has installed fiber optic cable down 600 miles of Shore roads and would have to cover 700 to 800 miles more to provide broadband access to 100% of the Shore, Upshur said.
He also suggested the county should subsidize the monthly cost of broadband service for low- to moderate-income households.
ESVBA is implementing a plan to make broadband available to 70% of the Shore but has “no clear strategy” to reach the 100% mark, Upshur said.
Donna Bozza, executive director of CBES, said supervisors should “push” ESVBA to create a plan to cover 100% of the Shore with broadband access or at least solicit a monthly report on ESVBA’s progress to expand coverage.
Supervisor John Coker pointed out that making broadband available to the entire Eastern Shore is “complicated” and that ESVBA borrowed $5 million more than two years ago to fund its project to reach 70% coverage.
To reach the remaining 30% of Eastern Shore households with no high-speed internet likely would cost $30 million to $35 million, he said.
County Administrator Charlie Kolakowski added the $30 million price tag would cover only the cost of installing broadband infrastructure and not the cost to connect homes or pay for monthly service fees. Depending on a home’s location, it could cost thousands of dollars for each broadband connection, he noted.
There’s no “silver bullet” to solve the Shore’s broadband problems but supervisors will keep pushing the issue, Coker said.
The lack of broadband access affects families in both low-income neighborhoods and more affluent communities.
David Boyd, who lives in the Tower Hill subdivision of Cape Charles, said ESVBA has been reluctant to come to newer communities where the utility cables are underground, because it’s far more costly to bury fiber optic cable than to hang it between utility poles, making it less likely that ESVBA could turn a profit in those communities.
Boyd likened the situation to “reverse discrimination.”
Other concerned citizens who addressed the lack of broadband access in their communities included residents of the Vaucluse Shores subdivision, near Machipongo, and at least one resident of Silver Beach, near Exmore.
Coker said he had been in a similar situation, but he has worked with ESVBA for more than two years and has recruited 30 families in his neighborhood to sign up for broadband service.
He expects to have service by the end of summer and told the subdivision residents who want broadband that they have a “big job” ahead but “it’s worth it.”
“Don’t give up,” Coker told them.
Finance Director John Chandler added that there are three options available to Northampton students to get low-cost or free high-speed internet access:
Spectrum offers internet service with download speeds of 30 Mbps for $17.99 a month through its Spectrum Internet Assist program. Students normally need to qualify for free and reduced school lunch to be eligible for the program. However, Northampton participates in the U.S. Department of Agriculture Community Eligibility Provision that provides free school meals to all Northampton students, regardless of household income, meaning all Northampton students are also eligible for Spectrum Internet Assist.
Northampton schools also can give students in need mobile Wi-Fi hotspots that provide internet access wherever the devices can pick up a T-Mobile or Sprint wireless signal.
Additionally, a federal emergency broadband program pays $50 a month for a period of at least six months, which is applied to the monthly cost of internet access and is available to any parent of a Northampton public school student. Both ESVBA and Spectrum are participating in that program.
“So these are things the schools have been trying to do to bridge this digital divide, and I think that it’s well worth noting,” Chandler said.
In addition to the $2.27 million in ARP funds that Northampton received, the FY 2021 budget amendments unanimously approved by supervisors were:
- About $2.7 million from Northampton’s undesignated fund balance to pay for energy performance improvements in county buildings such as the courthouse and regional jail.
- Nearly $2.25 million received by Northampton County Public Schools in the second round of funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security or CARES Act.
- More than $5 million received by Northampton schools from the American Rescue Plan.
- About $3.8 million from the school enhancement fund for professional services related to the renovation and construction project at Northampton’s middle and high school.
- More than $10.6 million from the school enhancement fund for building improvements at Kiptopeke and Occohannock elementary schools, including the installation of a geothermal HVAC system at Kiptopeke. (A separate appropriation will be made next year for the installation of a geothermal HVAC system at Occohannock.)
- A $2 million appropriation from the Northampton school capital fund balance for lighting upgrades in non-instructional school facilities and future indoor air quality upgrades at Kiptopeke and Occohannock.