EMPOWER Broadband Inc. recently reached yet another significant milestone, connecting its 1,000th customer in Halifax County to high-speed broadband service utilizing fiber-optic technology.

The telecommunications company, a wholly owned subsidiary of Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative, currently serves subscribers in Halifax, Charlotte, Mecklenburg, Brunswick and Greensville counties. Thanks to its partners along the way — the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, the Department of Housing and Community Development, Southside Planning District Commission and the counties that have all partnered to make this a reality. EMPOWER is steadily growing, helping close the digital divide and changing the lives and communities of the families, farms and businesses it proudly serves.

“Our team has worked tirelessly to get to this point,” says President and CEO John C. Lee Jr. “We have been very pleased with Halifax County’s response to EMPOWER’s broadband offering and are seeing an excellent take rate there, especially as we continue to open new areas in the county. We are proud to serve these rural areas and gratified that people there are taking advantage of the service. Reliable, affordable connectivity is essential for Southside Virginia’s rural communities to grow and thrive in today’s fast-paced world of technology.”

Steve Roder, of Nathalie, was recently connected to EMPOWER’s fiber service. “EMPOWER folks rock!” Roder says enthusiastically. “After years of satellite internet this is awesome, no more limits. I couldn’t wait to cut that satellite cord, and, with EMPOWER, I can finally stream my Washington Nationals baseball games … it’s been a long regional sports network blackout for me, but no longer. It’s a homerun for EMPOWER!

“For those still anxiously waiting — I was one of you until recently — it will be there soon. It’s a lot like cable TV redevelopment back in the early 1970s,” continues Roder, who worked in the cable industry at that time. “We all wanted it fast back then too. The anticipation is almost unbearable waiting for light speed! I think what EMPOWER is doing is phenomenal for Southside Virginia, developing a solid 21st century infrastructure that is long overdue, going from very limited and old copper telephone lines in poor shape to a futuristic fiber-optic structure. Fiber will benefit every single person in our community well into the 21st century and beyond, bringing to our rural area options that we’d never be able to get from cable due to the homes-per-mile that cable requires.

“The EMPOWER folks are the most dedicated and hardworking fellows and ladies, both in the field and in the EMPOWER office. Every single one of the technicians I have met has been wonderful,” adds Roder. “The folks you talk with are our neighbors, not someone who’s difficult to understand, especially when dealing with questions or issues. That’s a definite plus in my book.”

EMPOWER currently serves over 5,400 internet subscribers and continues to expand services to additional homes and businesses, with multiple project areas across MEC’s service territory currently under construction. EMPOWER’s fiber network now includes nearly 1,300 miles of fiber and passes over 17,500 homes, businesses and churches within 2,000 feet of mainline fiber. Additionally, EMPOWER has applied for another round of Virginia Telecommunications Initiative grants for 2024 which, when approved, will reach up to an additional 13,000 passings across Southside Virginia, including 5,397 additional addresses in Halifax County. Announcements for the 2024 VATI Grant award are anticipated this month.

According to US census data, the average home in Halifax County includes 2.45 persons; subsequently, EMPOWER’s latest milestone is delivering highspeed internet to over 2,500 county residents. 

Currently, crews are continuing mainline construction in some of Halifax County’s most rural areas, including Ellis Creek Rd., Coles Ferry Rd., Clarkton Rd. and Hog Wallow Rd. in Nathalie and east from Hwy. 501 South to the county line, including the areas of Hyco, Mayo, Shady Grove, Moffett and Virgilina. Additionally, crews continue to make fiber-to-the-home connections to those in northern Halifax where service is already available.

EMPOWER Chief Operating Officer Casey Logan relays, “Reaching milestones like this one are fundamental in gaining significant progress. Another of our key objectives is to accomplish the completion of multiple milestones in succession and that’s what we have here.  Our fiber deployment plan for Halifax County has always included an agreement to use Dominion Energy mainline fiber to build deep into the rural areas of the county. In recent weeks, Dominion has not only designed a fiber-optic network here in Halifax, but it is also hanging fiber on poles to give EMPOWER the facilities needed to deliver much needed internet throughout the area.” As a part of the 2022 and 2023 Virginia Telecommunications Initiative Grant process, the county and EMPOWER enter a memorandum of understanding establishing the mechanism for EMPOWER to build the last-mile connection from Dominion mainline to serve homes lacking broadband.

In other related developments, the Virginia State Corporation Commission announced final regulatory approval and formally authorized EMPOWER’s use of the Dominion fiber network beginning May 1. Clearing this hurdle paves the way for EMPOWER to move forward in building fiber from these mainlines directly to homes and businesses of unserved homes and families.  Interested parties should follow EMPOWER’s website and social media pages for forthcoming availability schedules in Dominion areas later this year.

–Report by Dolores Cabaniss, Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative.