With Rappahannock Almost Stuck in Broadband Deal, Some Remain Skeptical | Broadband
Potential for tax hikes remains uncertain, although officials argue otherwise
The Rappahannock County Supervisory Board and the Broadband Authority have taken monumental steps to ensure universal broadband coverage for the county, but some officials and community members remain skeptical of the initiative.
The cost of the project, as well as its scale, has left some wondering whether or not taxes will be increased and whether the private partner chosen by the county has the bandwidth to carry out the vast Internet expansion project.
All Points Broadband, a Leesburg-based internet service provider, offers universal coverage in eight counties in Northern Virginia, including Rappahannock, and is asking the state for $ 97.2 million through a grant from the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI ) to complete the project.
Localities will know by December whether their VAT claims have been accepted by the state, which could provide a significant portion of the estimated price of the proposed project.
The cost of the project in Rappahannock County will require $ 19.4 million for approximately 270 miles of fiber infrastructure. If the state grants the VAT claim, All Points will get $ 6.5 million (34%) of the cost of the project, the VAT claim will cover $ 6.9 million (36%), and the county will contribute 5 , $ 9 million (30%). If the VAT subsidy is not granted, the whole project could collapse unless the county reapplies in the future.
Rappahannock County resident Chuck Akre and his family pledged the county $ 3.5 million to help fund its part of the project, and supervisors Christine Smith, from the Piedmont district, and Ron Frazier, from the Jackson district. , both expressed concern about accepting a large donation from someone. who’s about to bring official business to the board.
Akre is building a mixed-use development in Washington and asking the county to consider boundary adjustments with the city on his property.
“I think I was pretty straightforward – we think the availability of broadband in the county is extremely important to the future of the county,” Akre said in an interview with the Rappahannock News. “We have no ulterior motives, if that’s what you’re asking for.”
Akre was once a stakeholder in All Points Broadband, and he has said he expects All Points to be able to perform any contracts they enter.
At the Broadband Authority meeting on Monday, September 20, the board authorized Fairfax-based lawyer Sharon Pandak to work directly with the Akre family on an official statement declaring her commitment. Akre said he still expects the board to seek other sources of funding, but his contribution is guaranteed.
For weeks, the supervisory board and the Broadband Authority grappled with the large financial contribution the county should make to the project. Since the deal is not yet finalized, officials could still opt out of the proposed plan at any time.
All Points Broadband did not respond to requests for comment for this report.
Rappahannock County has entered into the plan with seven other counties and the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission to make their application for public funding more competitive. The plan also includes partnerships with Dominion Energy Virginia, Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative and Rappahannock Electric Cooperative.
All Points offers universal broadband coverage for all unserved areas of the county. Residents can expect a standard fiber optic installation fee of $ 199, with long drop fees waived for the first 12 months. The basic monthly service charge will be set at $ 59.99 per month.
No one in the county will be forced to change their ISP to All Points as part of the proposal. If a person is in an area considered to be “served” or capable of receiving high-speed Internet access, but their home does not receive adequate broadband, they can ask All Points to specifically install fiber optic in their home. residence.
According to All Points, the project would be “substantially” completed within 24 months of the award of the VATI grant. The county’s financial contribution can be spread over 36 months.
The board of supervisors reached the deal after a split vote, with Wakefield supervisor Debbie Donehey, Hampton supervisor Keir Whitson and Stonewall-Hawthorne supervisor Chris Parrish voting in favor of the regional agreement, Frazier voting against the agreement and Smith abstaining.
In an interview with the Rappahannock News, Frazier said this deal with All Points was rushed. He also doesn’t like that, as a stipulation of the deal, the county can’t seek broadband coverage proposals from other companies that would compete with All Points.
“Both agencies have now said that we will not tell any other provider about any further broadband expansion in the county that would compete with their plan,” Frazier said. “And that puts us at a huge disadvantage. And it looks like… we’ve abdicated our responsibility to this guy none of us have really met, ”he said of All Points CEO Jimmy Carr.
Frazier also said that if the county receives VAT money and moves to phase 3 of the deal with All Points, the possibility opens up for the county to use taxpayer money to effectively bankrupt d ‘other local Internet service providers, including Piedmont Broadband.
Piedmont Broadband did not respond to requests for comment on this report.
At a Broadband Authority meeting on September 20, Whitson pointed out that the organization had explored a partnership with Piedmont Broadband, but the company had not responded to the county’s initial request for information. All Points was also the only provider to offer full universal broadband coverage for the entire county.
“If the goal is to make broadband available to everyone – I mean universal coverage in Rappahannock County – the Piedmont Broadband representative emphatically confirmed that at best they could not. provide, “Whitson said at the meeting.
Parrish argued in the same meeting that it is not up to the county to protect private businesses and that nothing prevents people from signing up to Piedmont Broadband if they still want to.
“It would only be collateral damage,” Parrish said of the possibility of Piedmont Broadband suffering a financial blow.
Smith said in an interview that she wanted the board to sign a deal with Shentel, an Internet service provider based in Edinburgh.
“I am concerned that there may be a conflict between Shentel and All Points in the competition to provide broadband to these households, and I would really hate to lose the opportunity to capitalize on this federal funds,” Smith said.
Smith said she hoped Rappahannock would take a more diverse approach to universal coverage, naming Starlink, a satellite internet service provider founded by Elon Musk, as a potential option.
Smith added that some in the community might be hesitant about universal broadband as it could lead to growth in areas of the county that had not yet considered expanding.
“We talked about the county growth model in our overall plan as being very affected by neighboring counties, and I would say the expansion of broadband from those counties to Rappahannock County is one of those factors that can affect our growth rate, and that can increase our growth rate, ”Smith said.
At this time, it is unclear whether taxpayers will shoulder the burden of the proposed broadband expansion plan, despite authorities guaranteeing no tax increases. There are several outstanding issues in the county’s efforts to secure external funding for the project, primarily the VATI grant.
In a letter to the editor of Donehey, written in concert with Whitson, she claimed that taxes would not increase for residents of the county as a result of this project. “We are working diligently to identify all possible outside grants and other non-local revenue sources to fund as much as possible our local obligation of $ 2.4 million,” she wrote.
The county will receive a total of $ 1.4 million in federal pandemic assistance and about $ 500,000 remains from the initial federal stimulus package. The county will also receive approximately $ 330,000 from Rappahannock County public schools.
At the Broadband Authority meeting on September 20, Frazier said finding outside sources to fully fund the county’s portion of the project is an “ambitious goal” and that it appears the county will need to use a significant portion of its stimulus money to fund the project, rather than alternatives like infrastructure.
Whitson said the county will have to “think creatively” to find other sources of funding and that its goal is not to use local money to fund the project. But these sources of funding have not been identified or secured.
“I’m ready to do the groundwork to make this happen,” Whitson said at the meeting. “[We can do that] through phone calls and meetings, and by telling the story of Rappahannock County, and the fact that we are potentially at a historic point in time where we have the opportunity to provide sources of universal broadband coverage.
The potential of tax dollars to cover the end of the county’s broadband deal was a priority for members of the public who showed up for public comment at the Sept. 7 supervisory board meeting.
Bill Fletcher, a lawyer and longtime county resident, said some people might not even want high-speed internet. He was also concerned about the substantial cost to the county.
“I practiced law for several years in the county and felt it was my personal responsibility to manage this service for my clients,” Fletcher said at the time. “… I was also brought up with the belief that when you have been given to deal with government money, you have to be stricter with that money than with your own money.” “
Carolyn Butler, a retiree from Sperryville, said she threw her cell phone and computer in the trash on her retirement day and was not at all interested in broadband internet.
“But I can tell you one thing. i will not pay [thousands of dollars of] taxes that are worth it – there’s no way you can do me, ”she said. “… I don’t pay it.” I do not want it.