Rappahannock News

Frazier, Smith hesitate as late- stage negotiatio­ns approach

- BY JULIA SHANAHAN

In the Rappahanno­ck County Broadband Authority’s ÿ rst meeting of the year on Monday, some members of the body appeared hesitant to move forward with a major broadband ex-pansion project, despite the county re-ceiving more than $4 million in private grants to help fund it.

The body has been barreling for months toward entering into a binding agreement with private internet pro-vider All Points Broadband to bring

universal service to the county. But the terms of that agreement and how the project might be nanced have le some members of the authority on edge.

Jackson District Supervisor and authority member Ron Frazier said he’s concerned about the timeline of the All Points Broadband project, arguing there are immediate issues with unreliable phone and internet service in Rappahanno­ck County and the contract the body may sign with All Points would preclude o cials from seeking services from telecommun­ication companies to address those issues.

Frazier, who had in the past voted against moving forward with the broadband project, argued that the county can’t a ord to wait another 36 months for the constructi­on of a universal - ber network to address poor cellular service. He pointed to the recent winter storm that shut down power in parts of the county for almost a week earlier this month, leaving many without phone service or the ability to call 911 in the event of an emergency.

“We should bring (All Points CEO Jimmy) Carr or one of his spokesmen back in here and ask if there’s anything we can do in the interim … we can't just hope no one has chest pains in the next two or three years,” Frazier said, referring to people having health problems and being unable to call for help.

Hampton Supervisor and authority member Keir Whitson told Frazier that

he didn’t understand his “leap of logic,” telling Frazier it sounds like he’s saying we should “do nothing with berto-the-home to do something else that obviously hasn't worked in decades in Rappahanno­ck County, which is universal cell or wireless communicat­ion infrastruc­ture.”

“Ron Frazier has been on the Board of Supervisor­s for two decades, and why is it suddenly urgent that we think of some overnight solution on cell phone coverage?” Whitson said in an interview.

Whitson said the purpose of pursuing a project with All Points is so the county has a hardened ber infrastruc­ture. To serve people in the meantime, the re and rescue companies have pager systems, Piedmont Broadband is able to serve residents who have a line of sight to towers and people have landline phone systems to get them through this period, he said.

Frazier did not give any speci c ideas of what could be done in the interim on cell phone coverage while All Points builds a ber network, but said he wants to be able to ask Carr questions before moving forward with a contract.

“How can I be in favor of the project until my questions are answered?” Frazier wrote in an email. “How can I have thoughts about the APB contract, which the county will not be a party to, until my questions are answered? How can I assure my constituen­ts that the project has proper management control until I

can review [Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission] management experience and proposed safeguards? How can I assure my constituen­ts or any other county taxpayer that proper consumer protection­s are in place without having regulatory oversight in place? How can I explore interim solutions if I'm not allowed to work with other [internet service providers]?”

Piedmont Supervisor and authority member Christine Smith does not approve of the Board of Supervisor­s placing its eggs in one basket with the federal stimulus money going toward just the project, despite previously casting a vote in favor of reserving the money. At the time of her vote, Smith expressed the same concerns but chose to support the measure in hopes that it would bolster the fundraisin­g e orts by demonstrat­ing to potential donors the county’s commitment to the project.

Smith also said she was concerned about the potential speed at which residents will be able to receive internet service once the ber infrastruc­ture is built and whether constructi­on in some areas of the county will be prioritize­d over others. All Points has not released any speci c constructi­on plans at this point.

Smith, who had previously abstained from a vote on whether the county should move forward with the project, did not return a request for comment for this report.

“In my mind, even if it is three years to get a product, that is one and done, you're never going to have to change ber unless it gets cut, and it gets repaired,” Wake eld Supervisor and Chair Debbie Donehey said. “But in our lifetime, that ber will be available forever for anybody that has it to their homes. Yes, I'd love it tomorrow. But I feel like we've waited a long time in this county, and to have the best product in two to three years makes it worth waiting for.”

In December, Rappahanno­ck County received a grant from the Virginia Telecommun­ications Initiative (VATI) as a part of a regional agreement with seven other counties to build a universal ber-to-home broadband network to all unserved areas in the county with All Points.

The county will have to commit $5.9 million of its own funds for the project and has already received a $3.5 million donation from resident Chuck Akre, $1 million from the PATH Foundation and the Board of Supervisor­s recently allocated more than $715,000 in federal stimulus funds for the project. The county still has another $715,000 in stimulus funds on the way, but the Board has not discussed how they will use it.

The authority and Board of Supervisor­s, comprised of the same membership, must now decide whether to enter into a binding agreement with All Points before ber constructi­on can begin. Donehey said conversati­ons about the contract’s details likely won’t begin until February.

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