Facing Monumental Vote, Rappahannock Board of Supervisors Expected to Approve Broadband Expansion | Broadband


On Monday, the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors will have to make the hugely consequential decision to advance Universal Internet expansion to the finish line in what County Administrator Garrey Curry called the “most significant project” the county has undertaken in decades.

While a majority of the body would need to support the measure for it to move forward, the decision is not so clear cut for other members of the minority.

“If we just decided that we don’t want broadband here, I think those consequences of being the only uncolored place on the map would be very bad for our community,” Curry said in an interview.

The Board of Supervisors will decide whether to enter into a contract with private internet provider All Points Broadband and the North Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission (NSVRC) that would commit Rappahannock County to an eight-year deal. counties using state and federal funds to build universal fiber infrastructure.

If the supervisors go through with the contract, Rappahannock officials expect to be able to extend Internet access to thousands of underserved homes at no cost to the taxpayer.

Wakefield Supervisor and President Debbie Donehey said this project is a “unique opportunity”, especially for a rural community like Rappahannock, where building fiber infrastructure can be extremely difficult due to the terrain and the lack of housing density.

“When you have no choice, I think [this project] becomes extremely important,” Donehey said of the lack of internet service options available to many Rappahannock residents. “We don’t have the ability to have cell towers everywhere and cell service everywhere, and multiple Comcast or other fiber companies…Prove me wrong, I’ll be happy to be wrong , but I think it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Wakefield Supervisor and Board Chair Debbie Donehey at the Griffin Tavern, his business in Flint Hill.

Rappahannock County has historically suffered from connectivity issues, and many residents have pledged to protect its views by opposing the construction of utilities like cell towers. Other internet providers in the county, like Piedmont Broadband, are less than ideal for residents who have geographic barriers that prevent a stable connection. And the remote access options are known to be archaic and slow.

Stonewall-Hawthorne supervisor Van Carney, the body’s most recently elected member, began his term in January after the state funding application process was completed. During the election campaign, Carney said he hadn’t heard any voters object to the prospect of high-speed internet access.

“Rappahannock never had a railroad, Rappahannock never had a telegraph, Rappahannock never had cell towers, and there are some things that Rappahannock just doesn’t – we’re a outlier in many ways,” Carney said. “And this project will get people completely online, and people who have been through COVID totally detached and totally in need of the internet for many reasons, whether it’s school or health and safety, all that kind of stuff. , will finally get it. ”

The COVID-19 pandemic has added pressure on officials to address the county’s internet service issues. Stories are spreading of college students trying to log on to Zoom and do their homework, while adults in the same household also had to work using the same internet connection that had grown too thin. This required students to sit in parking lots to reach trouble spots to complete their homework.

As part of a federal initiative to help states boost broadband connectivity, the pot of money being offered through the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI) was bigger than usual, and localities have also received portions of their allocated federal stimulus funds that can be used to cover project costs.

“All of a sudden, because of COVID, there’s been so much money thrown at the issue. And I know it’s ultimately dependent on taxpayer dollars at the federal level, but $20 million for Rappahannock County are hard to even imagine,” Donehey said. “So to be at this point of voting or not voting for the potential of every household that was unserved to have fiber is pretty exciting.”

Hampton Supervisor Keir Whitson said the county has been waiting decades for an opportunity like the one offered by All Points, and the pandemic has created an unusual set of circumstances that allow localities to build the infrastructure.


Hampton Supervisor, Keir Whitson working from home in Harris Hollow.

He said just over a year ago that no internet service provider wanted to invest in Rappahannock’s rural economy. Whitson said he would consider it “professional misconduct” to vote against the project.

“For me, it’s gotten to a point where it’s really a no-brainer,” Whitson said. “And I understand there is a risk in that we don’t have complete and total control over the government agency and private entities that provide us with this system. But this risk, I think, is worth taking.

But two members, Jackson supervisor Ron Frazier and Piedmont supervisor Christine Smith, have consistently criticized the project since its inception.

Frazier voted against entering into an agreement with All Points Broadband to seek public funding, making him one of only three members of the Board of Supervisors in the eight counties in the agreement to vote against the request. Smith abstained in the vote, saying at the time that she had unanswered questions about the project.

Frazier said he would not support the contract as it currently stands.

“It’s a shame, it’s probably a very important vote in which we participate [on Monday], but we don’t know any information about it,” Frazier said. “We don’t have maps, we don’t know where [All Points is] building. We’re going to be locked into this thing for at least three years.


JacksonSupervisor Ron Frazier brushes debris from the historic plaque explaining the Confederate monument outside the county courthouse.

Frazier and Smith both expressed concern about the lack of communication from All Points and the NSVRC throughout the process, and the reluctance of both entities to answer questions from agency members. Smith did not return multiple requests for comment for this report.

At a Broadband Authority meeting earlier this month, Curry raised concerns about the contract in a memorandum to the agency after receiving the document on April 7, giving the county less than a month to review it before it has to be voted on by the state. May 5 deadline.

Curry’s concerns include the contract not specifying exactly which locations in Rappahannock will be eligible for service, what the cost of installing fiber will be after the 12-month period and what penalties are in place if All Points Broadband fails to operate the system once the installation is complete. It’s also unclear which party would be responsible for recouping the county’s lost investments if a project fails.

Whitson and Donehey said their biggest concern going forward with the contract is All Points’ promise of universal coverage for every county in the deal. Rappahannock’s topography is very different from that of other counties, and Whitson said ensuring that every hollow and secondary road in Rappahannock is serviced must be a priority.

“I will definitely do my part once this project is underway to make sure no one misses out, and that the system is delivered in the most efficient way possible and running as quickly as possible,” said Whitson.

Curry and Sharon Pandak, a Fairfax-based attorney hired to review the contract, worked with the NSVRC on contract language, but Pandak said a language change was unlikely. She said it might be possible to negotiate changes to the contract.

Curry wrote in an email that he “has not received any updated agreements at this time, so I cannot comment on how ‘negotiations are going.’ hypothetical positions and wait to see what we know by the time [Rappahannock County Broadband Authority] and [Board of Supervisors] consider an opinion.

Frazier said another of his reservations is a stipulation that the county cannot approach other Internet service providers to inquire about possible services in Rappahannock while the county is doing business with All Points. This “good faith clause” is something Smith has also repeatedly cited as a concern.

“We can’t really work on any other solutions,” Frazier said. “I’m trying to prove something that doesn’t exist, because we’re not allowed to work on anything. We are not allowed to speak to other companies. And I don’t know who all these people are [who support the project]. Our meetings are rarely attended. Who are these people who want this? Where are they?”

The project has generated interest across the county, as evidenced by numerous letters to the editor published in the Rappahannock News and dozens of residents attending town hall meetings to talk about the need for broadband since the project was proposed l ‘last summer.

But opponents in the county haven’t shown the same public fervor for the broadband project as they have for past local issues that sparked culture wars, like a proposed 2018 bike lane that caused yard signs to emerge from opposition across the county and brought out dozens of people at a single public meeting.

Although Frazier isn’t sure why residents haven’t shown the same level of interest in the broadband project, the other three members of the organization supporting the project say it’s because broadband isn’t a division problem in the county.

“I think just because by nature it’s not [political]”, Carney said of the broadband expansion. “I mean, people want it. Pretty short and simple. People really want it, actually. People want it so bad that everyone’s talking about it. It’s hard to split when everyone wants to.

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