County awarded tobacco money to fund next phase

Clay Stewart, president of SCS Broadband Internet Service, outlines goals of Halifax County to implement a robust internet network that provides affordable and sufficient internet to unserved areas of the county.

A broadband initiative to provide affordable internet to residents in Southern Virginia is taking another step, courtesy of a $206,202 grant approved by the tobacco commission on Thursday.

Meeting in Richmond, members of the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission gave a thumbs up to the Halifax County Broadband Initiative, a multi-jurisdictional effort with Pittsylvania County and the town of Brookneal, along with a private partner, SCS Broadband.

Service generally will be provided to unserved or underserved residents in rural areas of Halifax, southern Campbell and eastern Pittsylvania counties.

All of Halifax and Pittsylvania counties will be served, as well as adjacent areas of surrounding counties.

Mecklenburg County, along with co-applicant Mecklenburg Electric, also saw their project fully funded to the tune of $2,611,391, for the EMPower Project, designed to provide ultra high-speed broadband services to currently unserved Southern Virginia households and businesses, including Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative customers in Halifax County.

“Obviously, good news, we were fully funded,” said ED-1 Supervisor J. T. Davis, who is spearheading the broadband expansion effort in the county.

“Mecklenburg was fully funded, but all projects weren’t approved,” he added.

The funding comes by means of a grant, and the vetting process carried over into the night on Thursday, before the full commission approved the monies, according to Davis.

The request first had to get approval from the tobacco commission’s research and development committee that includes South Boston Mayor Ed Owens, Davis said.

“We rose to the top, but it was nip and tuck,” said Davis.

“(Delegate) James Edmunds texted me, and it went into the early night before a decision was made. James supported us 100 percent, and I give a lot of accolades to Ed Owens. He was the one in the committee who helped get it out of committee. He deserves a lot of credit, and without him I don’t know how it would have come out of committee. He did a stellar job.”

Earlier, the research and development committee had approved the use of up to $10 million as a multi-year commitment to assist in constructing “last-mile” broadband telecommunications infrastructure in unserved areas of the region.

It earmarked those funds and incentives to localities and qualified experienced private sector broadband providers working in partnership, including Halifax County and SCS Broadband.

The tobacco commission is considering funding rural broadband networks through loans rather than grants, as it previously has done, and the decision to award the funds through a grant rather than a loan was a key win for the applicants, Davis explained.

“They had been back and forth on this as far as a grant or a loan, and we were adamant they couldn’t change rules on us mid-stream or change horses on us mid-stream,” he added.

Advocates for the Halifax County and Mecklenburg County initiatives presented a united front in lobbying for the grant funding, and those efforts paid off, according to Davis.

“We have worked together in lobbying for this, and if not for a strong lobbying effort, I don’t think all of this would have happened,” he said.

“I thought the best we could get out of this was to get half the grant now and reapply for the rest of it later for the other half. We got the big slice of the pie, the best we could have hoped for, because we were thinking at one time the way the momentum was going it would be back to being a loan.

“A loan was going to hurt us and also Mecklenburg as far as an implementation program,” Davis said. “We’d have to pay the money back, instead of putting it back into expanding broadband from phase one to two, and we have four phases.”

Clay Stewart, president of SCS Broadband, told supervisors last year the project would be divided into four phases.

Phase one, planned for Nov. 1 through June 2018, will bring internet service to the Nathalie, Republican Grove, Crystal Hill and Ingram areas through nine new tower setups.

Phase two, planned for January 2018 through May 2018 will bring service to the Clover, Whitesville and Virgilina areas through an estimated four new tower setups.

Phase three, planned for June 2018 through October 2018 will bring service to the Scottsburg and Alton areas through an estimated three new tower setups.

Phase four, planned for October 2018 through December 2018, will bring service to the Cluster Springs and Alton areas.

No new tower setups are planned for phase four.

County vertical assets will be made available to SCS at a low or no cost.

Because SCS is able to piggyback on existing towers in Pittsylvania County and Mt. Airy, North Carolina, they are looking to advance the schedule and get two towers up and running.

“This is going to help us with deployment, so we can deploy faster,” Davis added. “We’re actually now waiting on the permitting process as far as tower rentals. We’re ready to go as far as hanging equipment.

“We have fought long and hard, but at the end of the day these projects rose to the top, because the merits are there,” the ED-1 supervisor said.

Doug Ford reports for The Gazette-Virginian. Contact him at dford@gazettevirginian.com.

Doug Ford covers news and sports for The Gazette-Virginian. Contact him at dford@gazettevirginian.com.