Partners seek to expedite broadband deployment
Published 6:35 pm Friday, February 10, 2023
Universal access to broadband and high-speed internet is on the way for the city of Suffolk, Southampton County and Isle of Wight County, but the deployment process needs to become more efficient in order to help all the parties involved comfortably meet the three-year deadline upon which the project’s funding is contingent.
Windsor-based Community Electric Cooperative stated in a Jan. 31 news release that a meeting took place the week prior in Richmond with officials from CEC, Charter Communications, Southampton, Isle of Wight, Suffolk and state Del. Emily Brewer, who represents Virginia’s 64th district, which includes Isle of Wight County and part of Suffolk.
“The meeting was held to seek better alignment among the parties on the administrative processes and deployment practices required to construct a broadband network in a timely and cost-effective manner,” officials noted in the release.
In a Monday, Feb. 6, interview with The Tidewater News, Brewer shared further details on the meeting, while also summarizing the process that led to the broadband expansion project being funded.
FUNDING THE PROJECT
“A couple years ago, some of the localities applied separately,” Brewer said, “and I stepped out with them when they didn’t get the approval, and I said I’ll write a letter of support, and I believed that it would be helpful, that it would enhance the viability of the project, to do multi-localities.”
Ashley C. Covington is marketing and existing business manager for Franklin Southampton Economic Development Inc., and she explained in a September 2022 interview that Southampton County partnered by itself with Charter to apply for the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative grant in 2020.
“We, unfortunately, did not get that award,” she said. “But 2021 came around, and Charter came back to us, but this time with Isle of Wight County and the city of Suffolk.”
Southampton, Suffolk and Isle of Wight, in conjunction with Charter/Spectrum and the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, submitted a regional grant application for DHCD’s 2022 VATI cycle, which totals around $21 million, the FSEDI website states.
This application proved to be successful.
Brewer explained that when “you’re bringing in staff and resources and doing major deployment, it helps drive costs down and helps increase efficiency by doing it as a team in our multiple localities.”
There is a deadline all parties must meet with regard to the VATI grant funding.
DETAILS OF THE JAN. 25 MEETING
“We have a 36-month time window, per federal stipulation, to make sure that we can get the project done in that time limit,” Brewer said.
Addressing the Jan. 25 meeting between the parties involved in the project, Brewer said, “We just had to sit down at the table and really talk about what resources did they need or what could the localities assist with, what could Community Electric help with and also what could Charter do to make sure that we could try to get at each stage of the permitting processing quicker so that way we can meet that deadline.
“And so we talked through what they thought some of the barriers were in between, because when you’re working with brand new people, we’re working with localities, (an) electric co-op and then also a cable provider, it’s a very unique partnership. And so it was just a great opportunity for us to sit down, all get on the same page, and make sure that we could all get up to speed and hand off in a timely manner each stage along the way of that permitting process.”
Donald T. Robertson, assistant county administrator for Isle of Wight, was at the meeting, and on Friday, Feb. 3, he shared his summary of how it went and why it was important for the broadband deployment project.
“Keep in mind, we’re still in the front end of this process, and so it’s new for Community Electric, it’s new for Charter, it’s new for the community, so what we were really trying to do is to make sure that if we have a permitting process that’s in place, is it being conducted as efficiently as it could?” he said. “Can we speed the process up? If something’s taking three months to review, can we do that in less than three months? That was the conversation.
“How can we work together to make sure that this process is as efficient and effective as possible?” he continued. “Because we’re all trying to get service as quickly as we can to those residents in our communities, and oh by the way, there is a time frame that we all have to work in relative to the funding that’s been provided.”
He explained that physical work on the project started in Suffolk, and Charter is working toward Isle of Wight and Southampton.
“They are beginning some of the early work in Isle of Wight, and when I say ‘early work,’ they’re literally laying some of the conduit in Isle of Wight and beginning to lay some fiber,” he said. “They’ve not gotten to the point where they’re actually bringing customers online in Isle of Wight yet, but they are at that point in Suffolk.”
He noted that there are timelines that the project partners are seeing for certain activities in Suffolk, and those timelines have prompted questions.
“Can we speed those time frames up? Can we be more efficient?” he said. “This is a humongous project, and so we were concerned that we’re either going to be pushing those deadlines on the back end or maybe not making the deadlines on the back end if we don’t begin to realize some efficiencies and learn from our early experiences.”
Southampton County Administrator Brian S. Thrower also attended the Jan. 25 meeting, and in a Saturday, Feb. 4, interview with The Tidewater News, he stated that the critical path of activities to successfully complete the project involves the permitting process between CEC and Charter.
“As such, the major discussion point of the meeting was to ascertain how CEC and Charter can best align its resources to efficiently permit and construct this project,” he said. “Given the importance of this project and the fact it must be completed within prescribed timelines, CEC and Charter will be working together to find solutions to speed up CEC’s permitting processes.”
THOUGHTS ON HOW THE MEETING WENT
Thrower added, “I believe the meeting allowed all parties to share concerns and look for opportunities to work together in a positive manner going forward.”
Robertson noted the meeting resulted in a clear commitment.
“I think we all had a better understanding of each other’s either commitments or challenges, but we also all committed coming out of that meeting to working toward improvement of the process,” he said. “And so I can only trust that everybody will be committed to that moving forward.”
In CEC’s release, Brewer, who was described as spearheading the meeting, was quoted as saying, “I felt a great deal of progress was made in achieving better alignment among all the parties involved. I was pleased by the passion everyone displayed to meet this urgent need for the region, and by the candid and constructive manner in which the parties discussed ways to achieve efficiencies in the permitting and construction processes. This will keep stakeholders on track to deliver broadband to our communities.”
The release also included a comment from CEC Chief Operations Officer Jonathan Thompson, who said, “We had a positive meeting. We are determined and eager to create a safe and robust broadband network that will meet our members’ needs. We all have tremendous opportunities in cooperating together to find a way to make that happen.”
Thrower noted that Eric Collins, director of government affairs with Charter, is scheduled to brief the Southampton County Board of Supervisors on the broadband project at its April 25 meeting.
Officials from Suffolk had not responded to interview requests for this story by press time.