From left, U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine and Gov. Ralph Northam review broadband coverage maps in Virginia. (Photo Courtesy: Office of Gov Ralph Northam)

Electric cooperatives are a huge part of a record amount of broadband grants and financing as they continue to make headway into closing the digital divide in Virginia.

The cooperatives and their wholly-owned subsidiaries account, in various forms, for some $250 million announced by Gov. Ralph Northam to move the state toward universal broadband access by 2024.

With federal and state elected officials, Northam crisscrossed Virginia on Dec. 13 to make the broadband announcements, which totaled $722 million for all entities. The funding from the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative and the recently enacted American Rescue Plan Act will support 35 projects, connecting more than 278,000 households, businesses and community anchor institutions to high-speed internet. Cooperatives involved in the announcements represent all or part of more than 50 predominantly rural counties.

“Broadband is important no matter who you are and no matter where you are,” Northam said.

U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine and 7th District U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger accompanied Northam to an event at the Goochland County Fire House, where the governor announced $79 million in funding for a major project in central Virginia.

Firefly President and CEO Gary Wood speaks at a broadband announcement event. (Photo Courtesy: Firefly Fiber Broadband)

“Today is a landmark day for broadband in rural central Virginia,” said Gary Wood, president and CEO of Central Virginia Electric Cooperative and its Firefly Fiber Broadband subsidiary.

“Thanks to the critical funding provided by the federal government and made available through the VATI program, we can now assure that every family and business in central Virginia will have access to reliable, affordable internet service equivalent to the best in the United States,” he said. “We appreciate the hard work and support of Gov. Northam, Sen. Warner, Sen. Kaine and Rep. Spanberger, as well as the support of the supervisors in each of the partner counties.”

In conjunction with Rappahannock Electric Cooperative and other partners, Firefly will use the money to leverage nearly $209 million from private and local matching funds. That will hook up more than 36,000 unserved locations and achieve universal coverage in 13 counties, when combined with other projects.

“This issue matters to the kids and to our community,” Spanberger added.

In Weyers Cave, Northam announced the largest award of the package — $93 million for the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission and All Points Broadband to bring service to more than 37,000 locations in eight counties.

Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative and Rappahannock Electric Cooperative are part of the partnership to provide service, with Dominion Energy and All Points Broadband.

“This is a day that people have dreamed of for a long time,” said Brandon Davis, executive director of the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission, citing the collaboration that brought the project to fruition.

In front of co-op trucks from REC and SVEC, Gov. Ralph Northam and participants in Weyers Cave celebrate a broadband announcement. (Photo By: Steven Johnson)

All Points Broadband will be the internet service provider. SVEC and REC will act as middle-mile carriers as part of the expansion, which SVEC President and CEO Greg Rogers said also will benefit system reliability.

“I am excited to see us gain efficiencies and security in our electric distribution system and business operations while concurrently helping our members and communities through being part of the rural broadband solution,” Rogers said. “We’re providing an option for internet service providers to bring broadband to rural areas, and that’s a major milestone for us and our members.”

Among several other projects announced on Dec. 13:

• A $69 million award to EMPOWER Broadband, a subsidiary of Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative, and the Southside Planning District Commission. The award will leverage $85 million in matching funds and enable EMPOWER to build fiber broadband to 11,527 unserved locations and achieve universal coverage in Brunswick, Charlotte, Halifax and Mecklenburg counties, when combined with other projects.

John C. Lee Jr., president and CEO of MEC and EMPOWER Broadband, said, “This is a monumental step forward in providing Southside Virginians access to the world of educational, economic, business and cultural opportunities afforded those with world-class broadband service. We are very pleased with the award, appreciate the confidence placed in EMPOWER to get the job done, and we are anxious to get underway and deliver this life changing service to our communities.”

• RURALBAND, the subsidiary of Prince George Electric Cooperative, had a busy day. An award to $7.5 million to RURALBAND and Dinwiddie County through the Commonwealh Connect Fund will build fiber broadband to 1,622 unserved locations and achieve universal coverage in Dinwiddie. An award of $4.9 million to RURALBAND and Sussex County through the same fund will build fiber broadband to 2,267 unserved locations and achieve universal coverage in Sussex.

Casey Logan, president and CEO of PGEC and RURALBAND, said, “It is truly significant for our project to be part of the largest broadband announcement of any kind. This truly is an indication that cooperatives continue to lead the way on connecting our rural areas.”

• A $1.6 million award to Roanoke County and Craig-Botetourt Electric Cooperative will build fiber broadband to 495 unserved locations and achieve universal coverage in Roanoke County when combined with other projects.

“We are so excited about the news that Craig-Botetourt Electric Cooperative, and its subsidiary partnered with Roanoke County, has received a VATI grant from the commonwealth of Virginia to construct a fiber network in Roanoke County within the cooperative’s electric territory,” said Jeff Ahearn, CBEC CEO.

“This project will pass approximately 495 addresses and will provide up to 1 Gbps fiber broadband service and voice over IP phone service. We look forward to identifying additional funding opportunities and working with more counties within our service territory to expand this fiber network. This grant will further help us achieve universal coverage in Roanoke County, when combined with other projects,” Ahearn said.

—Report by Steven Johnson, VMD Vice President, Communications, and Laura Emery, Deputy Editor, Cooperative Living

Video clips provided by REC and VMDAEC