A broadband project will bring high-speed internet access to more than 600 homes in rural parts of Halifax County.

EMPOWER Broadband, Inc., a subsidiary of the Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative (MEC), was awarded a $710,514 Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI) grant by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development.

The grant has a match of $2,918,620 from EMPOWER Broadband.

“The areas that comprise the MEC and EMPOWER service territories are typically the most rural parts of our counties where access to high-speed broadband is unavailable; accordingly, such areas are not profitable for traditional providers,” explained David H. Lipscomb, vice president of member and energy services for MEC. “EMPOWER’s team is experienced at utilizing grants and low interest loans to make a rural recovery model financially feasible.”

The grant was awarded in February, and because of the pandemic, Gov. Ralph Northam’s announcement of the project was delayed until late July, explained Halifax County Administrator Scott Simpson.

“We finalized the county’s agreement with EMPOWER and that was the last step in getting the funds released in order to begin the project,” Simpson said. “We are hopeful the project will be completed in the next six to eight months. That is what we are looking at, but that depends on the weather and how we get through the winter. Contractually we have until September of 2021 to complete the project.”

The broadband project marks the first time Halifax County has partnered with EMPOWER Broadband, but Simpson said he would like to partner with them on additional projects in the future.

“We are thankful to be working with Halifax County whose strong and solid commitment to its citizens has been evident in our collective efforts to deliver to those living here the best of the best Internet service and allow them to compete for much needed economic and educational opportunities,” said John C. Lee Jr., president and CEO of MEC and EMPOWER Broadband.

Simpson said the broadband project would serve three general areas of the county: northwest Halifax, Omega/Virgilina and Meadville and Highway 57.

“The first project will cover a small portion of Highway 40 from Cody Road to Bull Creek Road and then it will go up Bull Creek Road to the corner of Rock Barn Road, serving about 70 to 80 customers and five miles of line. Some of this project is in Pittsylvania County,” Simpson shared. “The Omega/ Virgilina section will cover a portion of Highway 58 from Virgie Cole Road to Aaron’s Creek Road and down Aaron’s Creek Road to Hitesburg Church Road and then it will go down Hitesburg Church Road almost to Red Bank Road. That covers about 194 customers and ten miles of line.”

The final area of the county that will be served by the broadband project encompasses Meadville Road from 501 to Chatham Road, Simpson said.

When the fiber comes up Meadville Road, it will go right to the part of Highway 57 that goes out to the county line, but it will also go left down Chatham Road all the way down to Swain Road, Simpson elaborated. The fiber line stops there and has a portion that serves a group of people on Asbury Church Road just past Jones Trail. That portion of the project involves the laying of 18 miles of fiber and serves 280 customers.

EMPOWER Broadband currently offers four residential packages to customers. All packages are symmetrical upload/download speeds and come with “unlimited data, no data caps and no down throttling once a preset data limit is reached,” Lipscomb said.

The fiber for the broadband project will travel along existing electric infrastructure belonging to MEC. By using that infrastructure, one of the added benefits is the ability to use existing right-of-way, Lipscomb explained.

“In most cases, the fiber will be in the air… pole-to-pole; however, if the electric lines are underground, the fiber will run underground as well,” Lipscomb said. “The drop from the main line to each home, or business, will be built on a case-by-case basis as to which route is the best for that location. Often the drop mirrors the electric line… an overhead electric line to the house will most likely lead to an overhead fiber drop.”

Lipscomb explained building fiber to a home is a multi-step process, and engineering tasks involve staking the route of the main line fiber and drops that will be used to provide service to the homes that choose to receive service. He said a bulk of the engineering work has been completed or is well underway.

After the engineering work and “make-ready” work is completed, Lipscomb said the next step of the process is pulling fiber along the main line followed by the construction of drops to homes and businesses. 

Upon completion of the drops, a splicing crew will be scheduled to splice all fibers along the backbone down to the drops and install a Network Interface Device (NID) cabinet on the side of the home and splice the fiber to the NID.

EMPOWER Broadband has constructed 125 miles of a 135-mile backbone of fiber traveling through its service territory from Gretna to Emporia since its formation agreement with MEC was approved by the State Corporation Commission in January 2019, Lipscomb shared. The 135-mile backbone of fiber will be completed by the end of the year.

It is through an extension of that backbone of fiber that residents covered by the recent VATI award will receive broadband services. 

“The changes in today’s world have created an environment in which broadband access is a necessity for education, remote working, tele-medicine and more. At the urging of numerous members, the MEC Board of Directors formed the EMPOWER Broadband subsidiary to bring broadband access to our unserved communities,” Lipscomb said.

The vice president of member and energy services explained fiber was selected as the medium of choice because it is a “long-term solution” with capabilities of delivering speeds at 1,000 Megabits per second, and it is not impacted by distance from a tower or tree blocking its signal path.

“This infrastructure takes time to build and represents a significant capital investment… but the task is well under way,” Lipscomb said. “The crews at MEC and EMPOWER Broadband are up to the challenge and will work diligently to bring this service to our rural neighborhoods allowing our families to enjoy the same privileges that are available to those living in towns and cities across the Commonwealth.”

At Gov. Northam’s July 30 announcement of the broadband project, Lee also commented on the importance in providing internet access to rural areas of Southside Virginia which have been overlooked by telecommunications providers in the past.

“Unimaginable amounts of data currently speed across technology super highways in cities and urban areas, but in most of Southside Virginia’s rural communities: Internet service still putters down the equivalent of a data dirt road, if service exists at all,” Lee said.

Northam said internet access for Virginians is an “equity issue” and that he has been fighting “for a long time to make sure that all Virginians have access to broadband.”

Miranda Baines is a staff writer for The Gazette-Virginian. Contact her at mbaines@gazettevirginian.com.

Miranda Baines is a staff writer for The Gazette-Virginian. Contact her at mbaines@gazettevirginian.com.