Virginia Governor Ralph Northam visited the site of the future SOVA Innovation Hub in downtown South Boston on Thursday to highlight the importance of bringing high speed broadband to rural and unserved communities.
Halifax County and Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative (MEC) recently were previously awarded a $710,514 Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI) grant, which will construct 55 miles of fiber and connect 703 units to high speed broadband. The Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development awarded the grant to the county.
Of the 703 total connections, 15 are businesses and community anchors. The total project cost is $3.6 million, with MEC contributing $2.9 million in matching funds.
“This is an equity issue. This is something that we have been fighting for for a long time to make sure that all Virginians have access to broadband,” Gov. Northam said. “As we speak, there are still about 600,000 individuals across our Commonwealth that don’t have that access. COVID-19 has really brought these things into focus for all of us.”
Northam added that he now lives and works in rural Virginia, and because of that, he was excited to make the announcement about the expansion of broadband to the rural Virginia community of South Boston.
The future home of the SOVA Innovation Hub at 715 Wilborn Ave. was an appropriate place for Northam’s announcement. The Hub is a partnership between Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corporation, a non-profit organization dedicated to expanding fiber infrastructure in Southern Virginia, and Microsoft Corporation.
“Over the years we have invested over $100 million into fiber infrastructure in 26 counties,” Tad Deriso, president and CEO of MBC told the crowd at Thursday’s announcement. Once completed, the Hub will be MBC’s new headquarters.
Before Northam addressed the crowd, Secretary Brian Ball shared his commitment to the expansion of broadband throughout the Commonwealth.
“From day one since he (Gov. Northam) took office, broadband expansion throughout the state of Virginia has been a huge top priority for him,” Ball said. “That was way before COVID-19. When we’re talking about broadband expansion and talking about COVID-19, we’re talking about people being able to telework, kids being able to go to school remotely now because being in classes is challenging in certain parts of the state. So these are fundamental issues of fairness and fundamental issues of equity that our governor addressed from the very first day he took office.”
Hubert Pannell, chairman of the Halifax County Board of Supervisors, also thanked all the partners involved in the grant award.
“The board of supervisors thanks all the partners who make these visions come to reality,” Pannell said. “The continued expansion of broadband will maintain the excitement of what we feel is the best community to live and work.”
John Lee Jr., president of CEO of Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative (MEC) and Empower Broadband, pointed out the inequities in high speed Internet access between urban communities and rural communities in Virginia.
“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.
The members of MEC recognized that the need for high-speed Internet to the region and formed Empower Broadband late in 2018. Since then, Empower Broadband has been working with counties in its region, including Halifax County, to expand high-speed broadband to homes and businesses.
“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,” Lee said.
Sen. Jennifer Boysko of Northern Virginia also discussed the importance of the expansion of broadband at Thursday’s announcement.
“This $710,000 VATI grant as you’ve heard will connect over 700 homes right here in our community, and it’s a great example of the initiatives that we’re going to be expanding throughout the un-served areas of Virginia,” Boysko said. “Everybody here knows how important broadband is. It’s one of the most important economic drivers…Now more than ever we see that clear access to high speed Internet is critical to the success of our modern economy and to our way of life.”