By Carol Vaughn —
Two companies filed challenges to the Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority’s application for a Virginia Telecommunications Initiative grant, which, if approved, would give $12.3 million in state funds to expand the broadband network in Accomack and Northampton counties.
ESVBA Executive Director Robert Bridgham received an Oct. 28 letter informing the authority that Charter/Spectrum and Declaration Networks Group are challenging the application, claiming there is an overlap of service at 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload speed.
The ESVBA had until Nov. 18 to submit a rebuttal.
The Department of Housing and Community Development, the agency that oversees the VATI grants, asked for more detailed information about how the ESVBA determined that the properties within the project area are unserved and the methodology used to determine the project’s overlap with existing services.
The challengers must demonstrate that more than 10% of serviceable units for wire line projects and 25% for wireless projects in the project area already have access to high-speed internet, Mason told the Accomack County Board of Supervisors Wednesday.
“Spectrum claims it already serves more than 10% of the service area designated in the ESVBA application,” he said, adding Spectrum asked for and was granted an exemption under the Freedom of Information Act, meaning certain data is not available to the ESVBA, “making detailed rebuttal difficult for the broadband authority,” according to Mason.
Supervisor Robert Crocket called the FOIA exemption “ridiculous.”
Additionally, “DNG claims … that 38% of the 14,515 proposed service locations are serviceable by DNG,” including 768 locations in Captains Cove, Mason said.
The DHCD will notify the ESVBA and the challengers of its decision about the challenges by Dec. 3, according to the letter.
In answer to a question from Supervisor Harris Phillips about the grant program, Mason said the Virginia Association of Counties held a session on broadband at its conference “and this issue came up.”
“There were various concerns and complaints about the challenge process,” he said.
The proposed ESVBA 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.
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.”
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, according to the application.