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From left: MEC senior staffers, David Jones, MEC board chairman (hardhat in hand); Sen. Mark Warner; Evan Feinman, chief broadband advisor to Gov. Ralph Northam; John C. Lee Jr., president and CEO of Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative; and Franklin Myers, MEC board vice chairman.

During the congressional recess in August, U.S. Sen. Mark Warner visited with Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative’s board members and senior staff to discuss rural broadband deployment.

Warner toured one of Mecklenburg’s fiber-splicing trailers that is embossed with words the cooperative lives by in their work through its last-mile fiber subsidiary, Empower Broadband: “Why should you settle for less? Rural Virginians deserve high-speed broadband too!”

After a tour of the cooperative and the supply yard, Warner joined MEC staff members and board members for a roundtable discussion. He discussed his work on the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which would bring more federal broadband funding to Virginia. Warner emphasized that the next round of funding would have a significant earmark for broadband affordability.

He also asked questions of MEC board members and staff about how the cooperative business model enables cooperatives to be key players in solving Virginia’s broadband problems.

“I think one of the things that favors cooperatives to undertake this broadband deployment is our governance,” said John C. Lee Jr, president and CEO of Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative. “As it is with electricity, those that determine what our broadband rates will be live here. Our board chairman and vice chairman live right here in the areas we serve as does our entire elected board. They are leaders in this community and they are the ones who ultimately decide what our rates will be … so we have kind of a built-in safety net with regards to affordability.

“Our long-term vision is, in five to six years, to be in a place with Empower Broadband where we can take its revenues and bring them back to Mecklenburg Electric to keep our rates down. Then you have a valuable economic development tool because the first thing these folks ask when they come in is, ‘What is power going to cost?’ If we can utilize the funds to keep our rates lower, we get a double benefit.”

After the thorough conversation, Warner reiterated his support for Empower’s work and support for all of Virginia’s electric cooperatives in their essential work in the community.

— Report by Sadie Gary, VMD Director of Legislative Affairs