On May 11, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s office announced the Southside Planning District Commission (SPDC) and its internet partner, EMPOWER Broadband, were awarded $8.5 million to expand its fiber network and services to an additional 4,804 addresses in portions of Brunswick, Charlotte, Greensville, Halifax and Mecklenburg counties. This 2023 Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI) award represents an additional project cost of $30,233,317 and includes matching funds from the counties, Dominion Energy and EMPOWER.

The award supplements the previous $154 million project to which VATI contributed $69 million in 2022. This latest grant will include additional addresses in each of the counties, including over 2,000 within Greensville County, the newest partner to this regional broadband consortium. To illustrate the impact on each of the areas, the grant adds 153 addresses to Brunswick County, 73 to Charlotte County, 1,943 to Halifax County, 2,041 to Greensville County and 589 to Mecklenburg County.

The FCC recently redefined broadband service as providing 100 Megabits per second of download capacity and 20 Megabits per second of upload capacity, quadrupling the former definition of 25/3, seeking to meet the need for growing capacity and speeds. By this new definition, the SPDC and its counties were able to leverage EMPOWER’s growing fiber infrastructure to extend service to addresses which were previously ineligible. The grant application was bolstered by including Charlotte and Greensville counties with SPDC members Brunswick, Halifax, and Mecklenburg.

EMPOWER’s John Lee noted, “EMPOWER is pleased to once again be the recipient of a Department of Housing and Community Development VATI Grant. Our great success in grant offerings is a strong indicator that EMPOWER is delivering, and can be counted on, to get the job done well. We are also proud to be a part of a successful team of partners assembled by the SPDC to ensure our communities gain the funding to serve our rural areas. This grant simply makes good sense for our region and for EMPOWER’s growing network. It maximizes the utilization of our existing fiber facilities, expanding service to even more rural homes and businesses.”

 “This grant has been months in the making and comes as exciting news for our communities,” said Deborah Gosney, executive director of the SPDC. “We are proud to aid our counties and bring other regional partners to the team to make our region one of the most connected areas in the commonwealth.”

The next step in the process requires the SPDC to finalize contract negotiations with DHCD, followed by the completion of agreements between EMPOWER and the SPDC. This process is expected to take several months but will begin immediately. EMPOWER will announce the formal commencement date of this latest project on its Facebook page, and on its website at empowermec.net. This grant will increase EMPOWER’s reach to include over 3,500 miles of fiber passing some 35,000 addresses over the next three years.

Lee states, “EMPOWER continues to blanket Southside Virginia with a world-class broadband network and we are working diligently to extend service to more homes and businesses. During May, and despite the incredibly difficult weather conditions, EMPOWER celebrated connecting its 4,000th customer and now those connections are coming at a faster pace, as we deploy 15 to 25 miles of fiber per week all over our region.”

EMPOWER’s fiber network now includes over 1,000 miles of fiber and continues to grow as it now passes nearly 12,000 locations. Currently, EMPOWER is working across the region with crews installing mainline fiber in the northwestern portion of Halifax County, including the communities of Leda, Meadville and Cody. Additionally, crews are working along Highway 15 in the Red Oak community of Charlotte County completing home installs and extending mainline fiber through Wylliesburg and along Highway 360. In Mecklenburg County, crews are installing mainline fiber and performing home-installs to neighborhoods adjacent to Hwy. 903 in the Bracey community, as well as the larger Baskerville area. Mainline fiber is also being installed in the Trottingridge community and along Highway 49. In Brunswick County, crews have completed all mainline construction and are continuing home-installs in and around Gasburg, along Dry Bread Road and Western Mill Road.

EMPOWER’s team is creating a map to include these new addresses as an addition to its Eligibility Map and will make an announcement of the update on its Facebook page and its website at empowermec.net. EMPOWER encourages those interested in service to click Check Availability on its top menu bar and follow the steps to register their interest.

–Report by Dolores Cabaniss, Public Relations Specialist, Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative.