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central virginia electric cooperative
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Five years ago, the Central Virginia Electric Cooperative (CVEC) announced the creation of the Firefly Broadband initiative, a subsidiary specifically built to leverage the co-op’s existing electrical assets to deliver affordable fiber to 13 underserved Virginia counties.
Half a decade later, the coop says it has successfully completed its $150 million expansion project, deployed 3,600 miles of new fiber, passed 40,000 total homes and businesses, and directly connected 20,000 state residents–many for the first time ever–in less than 52 months.
“Central Virginia Electric Cooperative partnered with Conexon to perform a feasibility study for a fiber build across their entire service territory – 13 counties and 3600 miles,” CVEC VP of Communications Melissa Gay told ILSR. “Once the target costs, offerings and take rates were determined, we chose to race to secure supplies and labor. Finding great partners has been a tremendous help to the success of our project.”
Buoyed by numerous grants including a $28 million combination loan and grant from the USDA's ReConnect Program, Firefly now provides local residents symmetrical 100 Mbps (megabits per second) fiber for $50 a month, and symmetrical 1 Gbps (gigabit per second) service for $80 a month. There are no contracts and no data caps.
About 90 percent of households connected had no broadband access previously, according to Bruce Maurhoff, Firefly’s senior vice president and chief operating officer.
Across the Commonwealth of Virginia, local governments, county broadband authorities, cooperatives, and private Internet Service Providers are leveraging the influx of American Rescue Plan funds to reach the state’s goal of achieving universal access to high-speed Internet connectivity by 2024.
With $850 million in state appropriations for broadband connectivity and $1.15 billion in local government and private service providers’ funding matches, the state is on track to invest $2 billion dollars toward broadband expansion in the coming years, and is currently investing in broadband expansion projects at record levels.
In August, Gov. Ralph Northam and the Virginia State Legislature agreed to devote $700 million of the state’s $4.3 billion in American Rescue Plan funds to expand access to broadband. The $850 million investment the state has announced will consist mostly of American Rescue Plan aid. The funds will be administered by the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI), which distributes grants to public-private partnerships to extend broadband service to unserved regions of the state, or areas that lack access to Internet service delivering connection speeds of at least 25/3 Megabits per second (Mbps).
Public-Private Partnerships Deep in the Heart of Virginia
From the marsh grasslands making up Virginia’s Eastern Shore, across the three peninsulas carved out by the Chesapeake Bay, all the way to the Shenandoah Valley in the West, a diverse array of regional partnerships have formed between Virginia’s local governments, electric and telephone cooperatives, and private ISPs as broadband expansion efforts continue to advance in 2022.
Five electric cooperatives in three states have joined forces to form a new broadband co-op with a mission to bring high-speed Internet service to the unserved rural parts of Virginia, Maryland and Delaware.
The formation of the Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Broadband Cooperatives (VMDABC) was announced at the start of the new year, harkening back 76 years ago when those same three states formed the Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives (VMDAEC) to bring electricity to the rural areas in those states.
“This association is the first of its kind in the nation,” said VMDABC Board Chairman Casey Logan, CEO of the Waverly, Va.-based Prince George Electric Cooperative, and its broadband subsidiary, RURALBAND.
“This is truly a historic day,” Logan said when the tri-state association was announced in January. “Much like the Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives was created 76 years ago during the formative years of rural electrification, today’s formal organization of a broadband association will improve the quality of life for our members.”
The VMDABC will begin its work with five founding “Class A members,” each of which are in various stages of building Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) networks.
In addition to Prince George Electric Cooperative, the four other founding Class A members are the BARC Electric Cooperative, based in Millboro, Va., and its subsidiary, BARC Connects; the Arrington, Va.-based Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, and its subsidiary, Firefly Fiber Broadband; the Choptank Electric Cooperative in Denton, Md., and its subsidiary, Choptank Fiber LLC; and the Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative, based in Chase City, Va., and its subsidiary, EMPOWER Broadband. Collectively, they provide electric service to 135,000 members.
Envisioning a Path Forward
Central Virginia Electric Cooperative (CVEC), has been working on their plan to deploy Fiber-to-the Home (FTTH) to members and surrounding premises since 2017. The rural cooperative received a financial boost when they recently received a grant and loan award from the USDA's ReConnect Program.
Welcome Funding for Fiber
With $28 million - part loan and part grant - CVEC plans to fund the first three years of their project. The USDA funding will allow CVEC to connect more than 17,000 households, six health care centers, 15 educational facilities, and 15 other community facilities. When the entire five-year plan is complete, approximately 37,000 premises will have access to FTTH.
In Buckingham County, CVEC officials announced the award to about 200 people, including local resident Virginia Jackson. She and her family rely on their mobile phones' hotspots for Internet access, which is unreliable and can be expensive. She and her husband were interested in the project and how it would improve connectivity for them and left "excited to see what the project brings to our community."
Early in the planning process, CVEC sought funding from local governments where they plan to deploy infrastructure. They did obtain support, but still sought grants and loans elsewhere to help pay for construction of the project, which they estimated to cost between $110 and $120 million. CVEC has received grants from the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI), FCC Connect American Fund, Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission (TRRC), and a loan from the Rural Utility Service (RUS) for smart grid upgrades.
The Central Virginia Electric Cooperative (CVEC) announced in January 2018 that they had solidified plans to deploy fiber across 14 counties for smart grid operations and to bring Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) to the region. The project, dubbed Firefly Fiber Broadband, is underway, and we’ve got President and CEO Gary Wood along with Communications and Member Services Manager Melissa Gay on the podcast this week to discuss the multi-year project.
During this interview, we learn about the CVEC service territory, which is a mix of a few denser populated areas and very rural communities where poor Internet access, when it’s available, is a real problem. CVEC members have been dealing with unreliable connections, oversubscription, and outdated technologies for years. Those problems will be eliminated, however, with FTTH from the co-op that many have come to trust. By obtaining grants, working with local communities, and approaching the process in a strategic manner, CVEC plans on bringing gigabit connections to about 37,000 potential subscribers within five years.
Gary and Melissa describe the cooperative’s process, the discoveries they made about attitudes toward the co-op from members in the community (including some interesting stories), and lessons learned. We hear about some of their marketing approaches that focus on the uniqueness of the region and what it was like to establish a subsidiary in accordance with state law. Through all the hard work, Melissa and Gary have nothing but accolades for employees of the cooperative and compliments for local officials who helped get the project off to a strong start.
Learn more about the status of project from CVEC.
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Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
Electric cooperatives in Virginia are continuing to transform connectivity in the state’s rural communities. With funding assistance from state and local government, projects in Mecklenburg and Appomattox Counties will soon be moving forward.
Building Out Mecklenburg
The Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission (TRCC) was formed when the state, along with Florida, Minnesota, Mississippi, and Texas, chose to break off from a Master Settlement Agreement between the largest tobacco companies and the remaining 46 states. The proceeds from their separate settlement have been used for broadband and other projects to diversify the economy. The TRCC administers grants and a loan fund.
Last fall, the Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative (MEC) announced that they planned to upgrade their fiber optic network infrastructure to connect substations and district offices. The board of directors decided that the upgrade would give them the perfect opportunity to engage in a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) pilot project. As part of the project, MEC entered into an agreement to use the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corporation (MBC) fiber backbone.
The cooperative applied for a grant from TRRC and recently learned that they've been awarded $2.6 million for the $5.2 million project. They've dubbed the initiative the EmPower Broadband Cooperative.
EmPower will begin by offering 50 Megabits per second (Mbps) symmetrical Internet service for approximately $65 - $75 per month; VoIP will also be available. Members within 1,000 feet of the backbone that MEC deploys will have the ability to sign up for the service. Like other pilot projects, MEC will use the opportunity to fine tune the service and gage interest before they decide whether or not to take EmPower to the rest of their electric service area and possibly beyond.
Central Virginia Electric Cooperative (CVEC) has created a five-year plan to deploy a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network to premises within its distribution area. CVEC will begin with a one-year pilot program within a limited region in order to test and prepare for the wider initiative.
More Than Internet Access
CVEC’s plan for the new fiber infrastructure will include more efficient electrical operations across its entire distribution system. CVEC plans to install approximately 4,600 miles of distribution lines and offer services to all of its 36,000 members through a subsidiary. Because so many of its members live in rural areas, they don’t have access to high-quality Internet services. CVEC serves Albermarle County and portions of 13 other surrounding counties.
"CVEC believes that access to reliable, high-speed Internet today is becoming as important as access to electricity in 1937," said CEO Gary Wood. "Give the great need for connectivity, CVEC will leverage its fiber network to provide a broadband Internet solution that will serve the community now and for the future."
One look at the comments on the CVEC Facebook page reinforces the claim that CVEC’s members lack access to high-quality Internet service:
“You’re lucky to have DSL.”
“No Internet or cell service just two miles from the interstate has gotten old old old fast fast fast.”
“With an Internet bill over several hundred dollars a month for relatively crappy service, I will happily spend my money with someone who actually cares!”
“Shut up and take my money.”
Another Go At Access
Other plans to bring Internet access to members have fallen through. At a recent meeting that included the Albermarle County Broadband Authority and the Village of Rivanna Community Advisory Committee, Wood described two other failed attempts by CVEC that depended on partnerships with other entities. One involved delivering broadband over power lines and the other ended in an inability for the cooperative and its partner ISP to reach an agreement.