I viewed the recording of the BOS meeting held on January 23 and wanted to respond to citizens’ questions about the Broadband Committee and projects. As was noted by one commenter, the committee has not held a meeting in some time. In response to whether the committee still exists, Mr. Vivier resigned, leaving seven members still serving. We periodically discuss the need to meet and strive to remain current on the status of all county broadband projects, staying in touch with those in charge. All but one of our members are actively employed and time is precious. We have perceived no need to formally meet, nor have we received any indication of interest from the BOS or county officials in having us take any formal action or report for some time. We stand ready to assist however we can.
There are four separate projects approved with service areas in Patrick. Two Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI) projects are being managed under the capable hands of Mr. Michael Armbrister with the Western Piedmont Planning District Commission. RiverStreet Networks (RSN) is the internet service provider for one project impacting three counties including Patrick, and Charter/Spectrum is the ISP for a smaller VATI project only in Patrick. Both RSN and Charter have FCC RDOF Auction-funded projects covering sections of Patrick. The RDOF projects are not managed by WPPDC. Mr. Sean Adkins, the county’s economic development director, is the responsible official for broadband projects in Patrick and he informs the BOS periodically. Members of our committee are not privy to join in progress meetings that the project team holds, and we must make requests for our updates which do not include sensitive information. We were not allowed to participate and provide input in the planning and preparation of grant applications. While we sometimes feel more information could and should be shared with the public, we respect the opinions of the companies and officials managing the projects.
However, in response to the questions from some citizens at Monday’s meeting, it seemed the committee should provide an update to our citizens with information we have on the status along with some reminders on the scope of the approved projects. We also want to remind the public of the grant application which is pending approval or disapproval. Again, our information is limited by the desire of officials managing the project not to raise false expectations, and by what seems to be a painfully slow process in completing regulatory approvals and preliminary work so construction can proceed.
As citizens may recall, much of the county was awarded a federal grant under the FCC RDOF Auction through RSN. This is to provide fiber to the home in areas including and near Patrick Springs, Stuart, Woolwine, Vesta, Meadows of Dan, Claudville, and Ararat. Areas near Meadows of Dan south along the Parkway extending down to the Ararat area were awarded RDOF funds through Charter/Spectrum. Both RSN and Charter later were awarded VATI grants to serve locations adjacent to, but not covered by RDOF funding. The federal RDOF program has a six-year completion requirement, and the state VATI grants have a 3-year completion requirement. Both companies state they expect to work simultaneously on the federal and state-funded areas, completing both within the state-required completion schedule. The total approved funding for these four projects is over $45 million.
The RSN VATI-funded project includes middle-mile fiber installed by Appalachian Power (APC) on their poles with some of the bandwidth leased to RSN to serve broadband customers. Formal agreements between APC and RSN required some time to complete last year. Now APC is preparing a February submission to the VA SCC which allows up to 6 months for final action. It is anticipated that having experience with three previous similar filings, the SCC may require less time. No project schedule has been provided but assuming timely SCC approval with no significant revisions, work on the RSN portion of the project should begin by the fall. When the calendar would start on their VATI-mandated 3-year completion has not been communicated to the committee. Work cannot begin, and detailed information cannot be publicized without SCC approval. However, progress is in fact being made behind the curtains.
The above projects will bring FTTH to much of the county, but those grants stipulated those areas determined, correctly or incorrectly, by the FCC as already receiving service at speeds at or above 20 Mps were not eligible. More recently speeds below 100 Mps are no longer deemed adequate and additional VATI funding was made available last year to provide higher levels of service. The WPPDC applied for 2023 grant funding for several counties including Patrick to cover FTTH in those underserved areas. Awards were due to be announced in late December but have yet to be announced.
I am certain we all have many questions: will my home be served and by what company, when will I receive service, what services will be provided, the cost, why is it taking so long, and more. Hopefully, this update has been helpful, but the committee highly recommends public meetings with the providers and project managers where citizens can hear the facts and have questions addressed. BOS Chairman Kendrick suggested last Monday night to Mr. Adkins that he set up meetings soon. Mr. Armbrister indicated he has asked RSN to plan for an early 2023 presentation to the BOS. Some information impacting RSN projects would depend on SCC actions, and it may be decided to delay this meeting or to hold an additional meeting later.
The Charter project grants did not include any APC middle-mile fiber, so the above SCC issues do not apply. Their VATI grant contract was signed in August 2022, so it appears their required completion end date would be August 2025. There does not appear to be anything to delay the county from setting up a public meeting with Charter to discuss all aspects of broadband projects and services with the several thousand citizens they are to serve. The admonition that the squeaky wheel gets the grease might suggest that the interest shown might incentivize them to expedite work in this badly and long-neglected area where neither reliable phone nor broadband services exist.
(Terry serves as chairman of the Patrick County Broadband Committee.)