By Carol Vaughn —
The Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority, with its partners, Accomack and Northampton counties, submitted an application under the Virginia Telecomunications Initiative 2022 program requesting $12.3 million in state funds to expand the broadband network in Accomack and Northampton counties.
Applications were due Sept. 14 and the grant awards are expected to be announced in late December. Fifty-seven applications for the fiscal year 2022 grants are listed on the VATI website.
The proposed project includes two main areas in Northampton and Accomack, including a five-phase project in Captains Cove in northern Accomack County.
The total cost is around $15.6 million to build 269 miles of fiber network, which will pass by 14,526 potential customers, according to the budget narrative in the grant application to the Department of Housing and Community Development.
Around $3.3 million will come from matching funds from the counties and the broadband authority.
Around 146 miles of the expansion, including 9,333 potential users, will be in Accomack County, including nearly 36 miles of underground installations. Around 123 miles, including 5,193 passings, will be in Northampton.
Of the total number, 14,227 are residences, 291 are home-based businesses, and eight are community “anchor institutions.”
Of the total, 1,948 are considered to require special construction, meaning they would require fiber “drops” of more than 150 feet from the network to provide service to the location.
The high price of paying out of pocket for such installation is among factors that has kept broadband service out of reach for those Shore residents.
The cost of that special construction is around $2.2 million, of which around $1.37 million would be for construction in Northampton and $888,233 would be for construction in Accomack.
The project if approved will ensure broadband coverage of all eligible areas in both counties by 2024, according to the application.
The area chosen is a priority because of the low population density, the long distance to homes and businesses, and the high capital cost for private providers, which makes providing service there too expensive for both providers and potential customers.
The application notes the poverty rate is 18.1% in Northampton County and 16.4% in Accomack County — 6% to 8% higher than the national rate.
Areas that would benefit from the grant if it is awarded include, in addition to Captains Cove and Greenbackville, Tangier; Chincoteague; Horntown and eastern New Church; Sanford and Saxis; the middle bayside area of Accomack County including Bloxom and Lee Mont; Hacks Neck and Harborton; an area north of Quinby; Upshurs Neck and Bells Neck; Occohannock Neck and south of Exmore; Birdsnest and east of Wilsonia Neck; Cape Charles, the south and north sides; Seaview and south Cheriton; Arlington, Sand Hill, and Capeville area; and Kiptopeke and Townsend.
“At project completion, the Eastern Shore of Virginia region would have reached universal broadband coverage,” according to the application.
Installing fiber in the more remote and low-population-density areas of the Shore using VATA grant funds, if they are awarded, “will allow residents to connect at affordable cost and attract internet service providers” to those areas.
The proposed area includes all areas of the Shore “that are outside any area covered by federal grants and other providers,” that is, outside areas covered by Declaration Network Group, Inc.
DNG was awarded a USDA grant to build parts of its network on the Shore.
The USDA grant area includes 17,456 units (end-user residences, businesses, or institutions).
Around 3,000 more units are covered by other providers serving private communities.
The ESVBA currently provides the fastest internet speed on the Shore, according to the BroadbandNow website, as cited in the application.
Up until now, the ESVBA has built 600 miles of fiber network. The authority also provides 26 wifi hotspots around the Shore.
Among institutions ESVBA serves are 23 schools, 46 government agencies and office, 35 health facilities, and others, including 911 buildings, sheriff’s offices, libraries, NASA, the Navy, and NOAA.
The new project area would include eight new community institutions.
Planning and preliminary engineering for the proposed project in both counties have been completed and both counties have committed to paying the match required by VATI.
If the grant is awarded, construction would be finished within 18 months of the award date, according to the application.
The application asked how the ESVBA plans to inform residents and businesses of the availability of broadband in the areas once the project is complete.
The most frequently used strategy is placement of door hangers at each home, according to the answer.
Additionally, availability of service has always been communicated through libraries, schools, the chamber of commerce, social services, and major institutions, as well as on local radio stations, in newspapers, and on the authority website.
The ESVBA began residential service four years ago. Based on that experience, the authority anticipates a “take rate” of 55% to 65% in the areas, meaning of 14,526 potential customers, at least half will get connected within 18 months of the start of the project.
Additionally, retail providers that use the ESVBA network likely will expand to the new areas.
Around a dozen residents, businesses, and other entities provided letters of support for the application, including Performance River Consulting of Cape Charles, whose owner. Amie Perry, wrote that Northampton County attracted the business “with its charming downtown Cape Charles area and proximity to Norfolk airport.”
Still, when they purchased the property on Latimer Bluff Road, the owners were not aware of the lack of internet service there.
“Within days of closing on our property, we signed a contract to have fiber run to our location at a not-inconsequential price.”
The installation was delayed by 10 months, according to the letter, which went on to say, “Other small businesses may not be able to pay the premium for broadband to their locations, or survive delays in obtaining it.”
Accomack County Public Schools Coordinator of Technology Services Jack Bowden wrote: “During the pandemic, it became obvious and continues to be challenging for our students and staff to work and learn remotely especially without access to reliable residential broadband services.”
Eastern Shore Rural Health System Chief Information Officer Mike Zodun wrote that the ESVBA has provided the primary network for the health system since 2010.
“During the pandemic that began in 2020, the speed, reliablility, support, and management of the ESVBA was essential to the success of ESRHS treating patients in and out of our medical and dental offices,” he wrote.
Other writers of support letters included Eastern Shore Chiropractic Clinic, the Eastern Shore of Virginia 9-1-1 Commission, Northampton Lumber Company, Shiloh Baptist Church, Pep-Up, Inc., Uchil, LLC, and several Shore residents.