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Bridging the broadband gap in southwest Virginia

A worker with Appalachian Power installs fiber on their utility poles in Grayson County February, 2022.
Richard Boyd
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Appalachian Power
Appalachian Power crews installing fiber on their utility poles in Grayson County.

Pati Dale lives in Bland County, not far from the West Virginia line, and when traffic is bad on the interstate, her internet is barely usable. “All of these signals are bouncing off the towers; nobody has any [cell] service that day,” Dale said. “Which means if you have hotspots you don’t have internet.”

Dale’s only option for internet at her house is an expensive data plan on her phone. “I know a lot of families are frustrated that they are paying more for hotspots than they would for internet services.”

Dale works at Bland Elementary School, where she provides mental health services for children through Mount Rogers Community Services—and her job relies on access to the internet. She coordinates telemedicine appointments for students at the school so they can see counselors and psychiatrists—some as far as 200 miles away in Charlottesville.

She also uses the internet to stay in contact with kids when they’re quarantined because of COVID-19. The school has high-speed internet, but a vast majority of people in Bland County don’t.

“What you see in southwest Virginia is lack of access to high speed internet outside of town limits,” said Kevin Byrd, director of the New River Valley Regional Commission— which was awarded a $68 million grant last year from the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative—or VATI. Their project is expected to bring high speed internet to 19,966 homes in Bland, Montgomery and Pulaski Counties. The grant funding will pay internet companies GigaBeam and All Points Broadband to build fiber connections into homes.

The VATI grant is funded in part by the American Rescue Plan Act. “Up until this point, many businesses that are delivering internet services were not able to recover the costs that it takes to build out a rural network,” Byrd said.

Since 2017, VATI has awarded over $797 million to various local governments across Virginia to expand broadband.

But this project in southwest Virginia is unique because they’re working with Appalachian Power as a partner, by expanding what the internet industry refers to as “middle-mile broadband.” Essentially, it’s a method of connecting a local community to a larger high-speed network. In this case, the utility company will install fiber optic cable on its electric poles, then lease the excess fiber out to internet companies. The VATI grant will cover the costs of getting that fiber into homes, while Appalachian Power is providing the up-front investment to install the fiber on their poles.

A worker with Appalachian Power installs fiber on their utility poles in Grayson County February, 2022.
Photo courtesy Appalachian Power.
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A worker with Appalachian Power installs fiber on their utility poles in Grayson County February, 2022.

The company is finishing a similar project near the North Carolina line in Grayson County and is also working on a middle-mile project in West Virginia.

One of the places slated to be included in the Montgomery County project is Riner, 20 minutes outside Blacksburg.

“We use internet for basically everything. Since I work from home, I’m on conference calls pretty much all day,” said Riner resident Tyler Morris. He was standing on a screened in back porch that overlooks a scenic rural hillside, finishing dinner on the grill for his family. It’s beautiful, but getting high-speed internet here is a challenge.

“When we’ve got a limited number of options, it’s kind of frustrating,” Morris said.

By December 2023, Morris could have high-speed fiber internet at his home. Appalachian Power hasn’t yet selected the exact addresses that would benefit from their fiber project. A spokesperson for the company said they’re awaiting approval from the Virginia State Corporation Commission. If their plan is approved, the company plans to begin construction in Bland and Montgomery counties next year.

Residents in Bland and Montgomery Counties who want to be considered for the high-speed internet project can reach out to GigaBeam, 540-726-2317 or email at info@gigabeam.net.

Those in Pulaski County can contact All Points Broadband.

A list of 35 broadband projects that received grants in December 20221 from the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative can be found here.

Roxy Todd is Radio IQ's New River Valley Bureau Chief.