ESVBA Gets $12.3M to Build Out Broadband

0
364

By Stefanie Jackson – The Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority (ESVBA) has been awarded a Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI) grant of more than $12.3 million to build out ESVBA’s fiber network and provide access to high-speed internet, aka broadband, to more than 11,000 locations in Accomack and Northampton counties.

“The broadband authority is elated to be able to bring over $12 million of state funding to the Eastern Shore to help continue to close the digital divide and achieve … universal broadband coverage for all the residents of the Eastern Shore,” said ESVBA Executive Director Robert Bridgham Dec. 15.

“This is the singular largest investment of broadband that the Eastern Shore has ever had,” he said.

ESVBA received one of 35 grants totaling $2 billion, which were awarded to counties, planning district commissions, and broadband authorities across Virginia. The funds will push Virginia 90% of the way toward its goal of closing the state’s “digital divide,” according to a Dec. 13 press release from the office of Gov. Ralph Northam.

Some of the $2 billion in funding was provided by the American Rescue Plan, and the rest was VATI grants awarded through the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development.

ESVBA matched more than $3.3 million of its grant for a total of about $15.6 million it can spend on its expansion.

When ESVBA’s project is complete, Accomack and Northampton will have universal broadband coverage as defined by state authorities.

ESVBA will install fiber optic cable down every public road that doesn’t yet have fiber, except roads in what Brigham calls “USDA protected areas.”

These are areas that are already served by another internet provider, Neubeam, which previously received funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide broadband access to those areas.

(Neubeam’s highest-priced monthly plan, with download speeds of 30 Mbps or megabits per second, meets or exceeds the Federal Communications Commission’s minimum download speed of 25 Mbps to qualify as broadband.)

ESVBA cannot receive state or federal funding for building out its network in those areas, but it is not prohibited from serving them.

The VATI grant award is good news for people who want broadband access but live in an out-of-the-way location such as one of the Shore’s many necks.

ESVBA already has installed fiber down the main roads in several necks, but now it will be able to extend fiber down the side streets as well, Bridgham said.

Each customer must pay a fee for installing fiber to the home and a monthly charge for internet service, but there are three options for reducing those costs, Bridgham said.

Emergency Broadband Benefit

ESVBA is participating in the federal Emergency Broadband Benefit program. New and existing ESVBA customers may apply. Qualified applicants will receive temporary discounts on their broadband service – up to $50 off each monthly bill.

For example, an eligible customer whose plan costs $39.99 a month will pay nothing, and a customer with a plan for $59.99 a month will pay $9.99.

A household qualifies if it meets one or more of the following requirements: an income at or below 135% of the federal poverty level, receiving assistance such as Medicaid or food stamps, having a student who qualifies for free or reduced lunch at school (all Accomack and Northampton public school students qualify through USDA’s Community Eligibility Provision), receiving a federal Pell grant during the current award year, or experiencing a substantial reduction in income since Feb. 29, 2020, due to job loss or furlough.

More information can be found at www.esvba.com/ebb/

Installation Assistance Program

Meeting one of the last four requirements listed above also will qualify a household for ESVBA’s Installation Assistance Program, which reduces or eliminates the cost of installing fiber to the home.

Installation assistance is also available if a household does not exceed the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s fiscal year 2021 low-income limit, which is $47,750 in Accomack and $48,100 in Northampton for a family of four.

A qualifying household can receive up to $1,000 off the cost of installing fiber to the home.

ESVBA has designated $187,000 of its own money for the installation assistance program.

Special Construction Charges

ESVBA is developing another program that will help new customers with fiber installation costs, which will be funded by $2.25 million of the $12.3 million VATI grant.

Unlike the installation assistance program, which is based on income, the special construction program is intended for anyone faced with high installation costs, even if the household doesn’t qualify as low-income.

The special construction program, as the name indicates, is for new ESVBA customers who need special construction done to install fiber-to-the-home. For example, a customer might have an exceptionally long driveway, or the cable must run under a creek, Bridgham explained.

It is yet unknown what the program requirements or application process will be; Bridgham is still in discussions with state officials on those topics.

However, Bridgham said that the program might aim to reduce individual installation costs by potentially thousands of dollars, so that even customers with special construction needs can pay the typical installation cost of $150.

Without outside funding like the VATI grant, it is extremely difficult for ESVBA to reduce special construction costs.

ESVBA has a specific method to determine how much it will charge each customer for installation.

ESVBA must at least break even financially on each installation after the customer has paid for a portion of the installation costs and two years of service – a 24-month contract.

Bridgham provided the following example: Suppose the actual cost to install fiber at a particular home was $2,000, and the customer wanted the cheapest service package with 25 Mbps download and upload speeds for $39.99 a month. (ESVBA also offers 50 Mbps, 100 Mbps, and 200 Mbps plans for prices up to $149.99 a month.)

The customer would pay ESVBA about $960 over the course of the two-year contract period, so that number subtracted from the actual installation cost of $2,000 would leave the customer with an installation charge of $1,040.

If the actual installation costs for a home were, for example, $800, the amount the customer would pay for service over two years would exceed that, so the customer would be charged the standard $150 for installation.

ESVBA identified 664 homes in Accomack and 1,284 homes in Northampton that would require special construction to install fiber at those locations. The designated $2.25 million in VATI grant funds were divided accordingly: $888,000 for Accomack and $1.37 million for Northampton.

Bridgham said ESVBA’s work won’t be done after the VATI grant-funded project is complete, but it will put the Shore “one step closer” to true universal broadband coverage.


Click on the image below to enlarge.

Previous articleJo Savage West
Next articleParksley Explores Options For Regulating Short-Term Stays