Shenandoah pushes forward with broadband expansion
Even while getting his teeth cleaned, Michael Keyser can’t escape the topic of broadband expansion.
“It’s the only thing they’ll talk about,” the CEO of BARC Electric Cooperative says, recounting a recent discussion with a dental hygienist excited about receiving broadband service.
BARC, a member-owned electric utility that serves the Shenandoah Valley, has taken the lead on expanding broadband access in the region. Sometimes compared to the federal government’s electrification of rural areas during the Great Depression, broadband expansion is vital to rural homes and businesses’ participation in the modern world.
Currently, much of the region can access only slow DSL or satellite broadband, which have and lower speed thresholds than fiber optic or cable broadband. And, with more people than usual working and attending school from home because of the pandemic, the need for broadband service has become only more pressing.
As Keyser explains, it doesn’t make financial sense for private companies to take on broadband expansion in the area, but as BARC needs to develop broadband access for its own meters and devices, it just made sense for the utility to extend service to the public.
“We realized … that if the co-op doesn’t step up and do this for our service territory, nobody’s going to,” Keyser says.
Since late 2017, the utility has expanded broadband access to about 8,000 homes and businesses at a cost of roughly $40 million. BARC is on pace to surpass 20,000 new customers during the next four years, reaching electric members in Rockbridge and Bath counties, as well as residents of Augusta, Highland, Alleghany and Botetourt counties. The bulk of the expansion has been paid by long-term federal loans, with about $6.2 million covered by grant funding. In late 2020, an additional $3.2 million in grants were announced in state and federal funds for project areas in Rockbridge County.
In light of the pandemic, BARC has attempted to further broadband expansion as quickly as possible, and Keyser says 2021 will be its busiest year yet, with plans to connect more than 2,000 additional customers with roughly 400 miles of fiber at a cost of $16 million.
“We don’t plan on slowing down,”says Rockbridge County Administrator Spencer Suter, whose government has applied for grants to expand broadband access in the county. “We’re going to continue to apply to … get broadband expanded to everybody.”
Keyser says those who have received broadband service “are ecstatic. The single question we get in the office is, ‘When is broadband coming?’”