Albemarle County this fall will apply for a share of an expected $2.25 million, two-year state grant to bring broadband infrastructure to rural parts of Albemarle County.
The county on Friday released a request for information seeking internet service providers to work with staff on an application for the grant money. The RFI asks service providers to give the county a broadband project plan to submit to the state as part of the application.
If the application is successful, said Albemarle IT Director Mike Culp, work on installing broadband infrastructure would begin in or around January. The grant requires that the projects be finished June 30, he said.
“Our goal is to work on more than one of the underserved areas in the county, and with more than one internet service provider,” he said. “Any service provider that is interested in working with us, we want to hear their proposals.”
Gov. Terry McAuliffe had originally allocated $2.5 million over two years for the initiative, but he announced Thursday that the program would be reduced by $250,000 as part of an effort to close a $1.5 billion gap in the biennial budget.
The program, called the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative, is administered by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, which last October awarded the county $75,000 to plan its rural broadband rollout.
County staff will present the plan that funding helped produce to the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors on Nov. 2.
“A lot of people will call this year’s opportunity a follow-on or phase two, but from the state’s perspective, it is a separate grant opportunity,” Culp said. “Now that we are finished with our plan, it will be a valuable part of our application for the implementation grant.”
County documents attached to the RFI show that the money will be used to target areas in far southern, western and northeastern Albemarle County. Areas highlighted to be served first include Howardsville, Covesville, Greenwood and Stony Point, a county map shows.
Albemarle does not have any tax revenue dedicated to the program, Culp said, but is instead relying on grant funding.
“That is just one of many grants that we are applying for, so we would not abandon the process, we would look at different ways of obtaining funding,” he said. “We don’t have any money set aside for it, but we are looking for any and all opportunities.”
Baylor Fooks, co-founder of Blue Ridge InternetWorks, which he sold to Ting in 2014, said he has not decided whether Ting will submit a proposal.
Referring to the map attached to the RFI, Fooks said he is concerned that more people in the county are without service than the map shows.
“We will definitely look at it and consider whether to respond,” he said. “It is interesting that it locates only about 400 homes in very rural areas, and the rest of the county is served by broadband. We would not necessarily agree with that.”
The Federal Communication Commission last year increased the definition of broadband from 4 megabits per second download speed to 25 megabits per second.
The funding will help connectivity in Albemarle, Fooks said, but the grant is not enough to fully connect rural parts of the county.
“I haven’t had time to look at the RFI in detail, but with just a quick scan of it … we think the problem requires a broader approach,” he said. “It is not enough money to get the outlying areas of the county.”