Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative has been awarded a $1.5 million ReConnect grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to provide broadband to parts of northern Halifax County and Brunswick County.
This network will connect 1,964 residents, 34 businesses, 27 farms, a fire station and two post offices to high-speed broadband internet in both counties. The grant announcement was made Monday morning at Nutrien Ag Solutions in Crystal Hill, an area of rural Halifax County where the fiber line will be installed.
“We were excited to be able to share this announcement with the USDA,” said David Lipscomb, VP of member and energy services at MEC and VP of marketing and customer relations at EMPOWER Broadband. “The backbone of our fiber network was built with funding from the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission and comes through Crystal Hill. This fiber line will branch off that backbone. We’re building it out, and it’s really good to be able to put all these resources together to make this happen.”
The $1,532,367 grant making the broadband project possible is part of the $550 million Congress allocated to the second round of the ReConnect Program.
“In today’s world, and especially in America’s rural communities, having access to high-speed Internet is essential to moving families forward,” said Brandon Lipps, deputy under secretary for USDA’s Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services. “Under the leadership of President Trump and Agriculture Secretary Perdue, USDA is committed to deploying high-speed broadband e-Connectivity to rural communities, because we know that when rural America thrives, all of America thrives.”
The broadband project will entail the installation of 17.8 miles of main fiber line in a part of Halifax County where scattered residences and farms primarily dot the landscape. The fiber line will go down Howard P. Anderson Road through Crystal Hill, down Hunting Creek Road back toward Mt. Laurel and from there will go north onto Clarkton Road, Lipscomb explained. While the exact timeline for the project has not been solidified, Lipscomb said it would be a “multi-year” project, and one that will help bring rural Southside Virginia up to speed with more urban areas of the state.
“Southside Virginia has been overlooked for decades. So often we’re overlooked and left behind, but we see that changing,” Lipscomb said. “We still have a long ways to go (in the expansion of high-speed broadband access), but it is moving.”
U.S. Senators Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine applauded the $1.5 million in federal funding for the broadband expansion project Monday saying, “Broadband isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity. Staying connected has never been more important, as Virginians are increasingly reliant on broadband internet to safely access medical care and keep up with their education. That’s why we’re glad to see these federal dollars go toward helping connect people in rural Virginia.”
Lipscomb noted the high-speed broadband would allow residents in the service area to work from home, stream a multitude of entertainment platforms such as YouTube TV and Netflix, as well as take care of their educational needs at a time when children are logging into virtual classrooms rather than attending school in person.
“When you are using a Zoom-type product or Google meet, that video has to have a pretty robust uplink, and the fiber probably provides that better than anything else,” Lipscomb explained.
MEC’s application for round two of the ReConnect Program was one of 172 applications received by the USDA for the $1.57 billion in the second round of the ReConnect Program. The USDA received 11 applications in round two of the ReConnect Program that are eligible for the $100 million Congress allocated to the program through the CARES Act.
In round one of the ReConnect Program, USDA invested $698 million to bring high-speed broadband e-Connectivity to approximately 167,000 households, 17,000 rural small businesses and farms, and more than 500 health care centers, educational facilities and critical community facilities located in 33 states.
The ReConnect Program was envisioned in March 2018, when Congress provided $600 million to the USDA to expand broadband infrastructure and services in rural America. On Dec. 13, 2018, Secretary Perdue announced the rules of the program, called “ReConnect,” including how the loans and grants would be awarded to help build broadband infrastructure in rural America.
While the federal funding is making the broadband expansion project in northern Halifax County possible, Lipscomb said strong partnerships with Halifax County Administrator Scott Simpson and members of county board of supervisors’ broadband committee have been key to the overall expansion of its high-speed broadband fiber network in rural Halifax County.
“We’ve got a good partner in the county,” Lipscomb commented. “We have found a successful and solid relationship and good support from those folks. They were out here today for this announcement, so we see that support.”
At the beginning of the year, MEC worked with Halifax County to secure a $710,514 Virginia Telecommunication Initiative grant from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development to install 55 miles of fiber in rural northern Halifax County, yet another branch of the backbone of MEC’s fiber optic network.
To learn more about ReConnect Program eligibility, technical assistance and recent announcements, visit www.usda.gov/reconnect.