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Funds to help bring broadband to Smyth, Wythe and Bland

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Long before the pandemic revealed that broadband connectivity is a necessity, not a luxury, Southwest Virginia communities were working to connect more and more homes and businesses – one grant, one project at a time. Those days of piecemeal efforts may well be done. Universal broadband for Bland, Smyth, and Wythe counties and many of their neighbors has been promised with money to achieve its delivery within the next few years.

The news came last Monday from Gov. Ralph Northam.

In a press release, the governor’s office announced a nearly $66 million award to the Mount Rogers Planning District Commission and Point Broadband and a more than $68 million grant awarded to the New River Valley Regional Commission, Gigabeam, and All Points Broadband.

Those grants and millions more of leveraged dollars, the news release said will achieve universal coverage for six counties: Bland, Smyth, Wythe, Washington, Montgomery, and Pulaski counties.

In those communities, according to the release, the projects are expected to build fiber broadband to more than 47,400 locations and achieve universal coverage in those counties.

Altogether, 35 projects were allocated more than $722 million to achieve universal broadband in 70 localities around the commonwealth. The release said the projects “will close 90% of Virginia’s digital divide.”

The funding comes from the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI) and the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and is expected to connect more than 278,000 households, businesses, and community anchor institutions to high-speed internet. The projects are also expected to leverage more than $1 billion in private and local investments, bringing the total broadband investment in Virginia above $2 billion over the past four years.

In the release, Northam said that this allocation will place “Virginia on track to being one of the first states successfully charting a path to universal access to broadband.”

“Broadband access impacts every facet of our daily lives, from education to business to health care,” said Northam. “It’s a necessity for navigating today’s digital world, and this new funding will close Virginia’s digital divide with universal broadband by 2024.”

Virginia Sen. Todd Pillion quickly responded to the announcement. The Southwest Virginia legislator said, “Earlier this year, the General Assembly was called into special session to allocate federal relief funding from the federal government. One of the primary reasons I supported this special session budget was the $700 million investment to achieve universal broadband access in Virginia.”

“I was proud to support multiple grant applications from Southwest Virginia totaling over $100 million,” continued Pillion. “Securing these dollars for our region is an absolute game-changer that will improve how we live and work, making Southwest Virginia an even better place for our families and more competitive in an ever-connected world.”

Smyth County Administrator Shawn Utt called the awards transformative. He noted that economic development as well as education will benefit. “Not only will it help with business and industrial recruitment efforts, it will also help with our folks who are here now, giving the students a more robust platform for learning and citizens in general a more stable connection to the rest of the world, Utt said.

Kendra Hayden, who works in Smyth County’s economic development office, noted that officials in her county had been working to develop and grow broadband and connectivity for citizens since 2018.

“Through the height of the pandemic the need for broadband connectivity in rural Virginia came to the forefront where broadband was no longer identified as a luxury amenity but rather core infrastructure needed for the growth of our county (and others like ours),” Hayden said.

During discussions about broadband, more than one official compared the need to that of expanding connectivity to electricity in the 20th Century.

Hayden expressed gratitude to the state and regional partners as well as boards of supervisors, local economic development board, community leaders, internet service providers, and the Mount Rogers Planning District Commission. She said that they “all had a hand in this monumental achievement.”

Hayden, who has worked directly on broadband for those years, said, “I am so very proud to be a continued partner in this advancement for the county I love and call home.”

Wythe County Administrator Stephen Bear focused on one entity for its help, saying, “We’re grateful to the Mount Rogers Planning District Commission and its staff, especially executive director Aaron Sizemore and deputy director Brian Reed, for leading this regional project to successful funding.”

Wythe County Assistant Administrator Matthew Hankins, who has directed the county’s broadband expansion efforts since joining its administration in late 2020, likewise extended his appreciation to the “strong partners who have helped us reach this point.”

He also credited Wythe’s board of supervisors, saying its members have “given clear direction and support for our efforts.”

Noting a study done last fall of Wythe County residents, Hankins said the results “made it clear this is the number one priority for the vast majority of county residents and businesses.”

“This is a great day for the residents and businesses of Wythe County,” said Wythe County Board of Supervisors Chair Brian Vaught. “The future of our economy rests on access to markets through the internet for people, businesses, education, telework and telehealth.”

This project will be funded entirely by Point Broadband and federal and state dollars, requiring no local match, Vaught noted.

Wythe County entered the competitive process with a second application that focused on a fixed wireless project by Shentel and Wythe County. That project did not receive funding.

“While our proposal with Shentel was not successful, we are grateful for the support of the Shentel team and for the efforts they made to meet a critical need here,” Hankins said. “While we don’t know the construction timeline yet, we look forward to working with Point Broadband to make high-speed communications services available to everyone.”

Point Broadband will enter into a contract with the State Office of Broadband and VATI to commit to service levels and funding.

Point Broadband and the Mount Rogers PDC won similar funding earlier this year to serve communities such as Speedwell, Sugar Grove, and Konnarock with a nearly $7.9 million award.

Work is already under way to construct Point Broadband’s fiber network and roll out service.

In this application year, the news release said, VATI received 57 applications from 84 localities that partnered with 25 internet service providers, requesting more than $943 million in funding.

The Department of Housing and Community Development administers the VATI program, which provides targeted financial assistance to extend broadband service to areas that are currently unserved by a provider.

The release noted that projects were selected through a competitive process that evaluated each project for demonstrated need and benefit for the community, applicant readiness and capacity, and the cost and leverage of the proposed project. The level of funding awarded is based on the infrastructure needs in the project area.

“Virginia and the VATI program continue to be the national model for closing the digital divide and today’s announcement cements our success,” said Secretary of Commerce and Trade Brian Ball. “This round of grants will connect more than 278,550 households/businesses to high-speed internet, ensuring more communities across the Commonwealth have access to the necessities of modern life.”

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