In regional broadband project, only three officials are opposed
Of more than three dozen county supervisors, Rappahannock’s Ron Frazier is a lonely dissenter, expressing concerns about the initiative’s ultimate cost
Among the eight counties in the regional agreement to bring universal broadband to rural Virginia, just three of the nearly 38 elected county officials voted against allowing their county to seek state funding for internet expansion. One of those officials belongs to Rappahannock County.
Last fall when each county voted to move forward with a broadband expansion plan with private internet provider All Points Broadband, those who voted against joining the regional agreement included Jackson Supervisor Ron Frazier in Rappahannock County, along with Supervisors Michael Shull of Augusta County and Keith Guzy of Page County.
All Points, the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission and the eight participating counties received about $95 million in state funding in December from the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative as a direct result of that vote to build universal fiber infrastructure across the counties at an affordable rate.
As localities near the final phase of negotiations with All Points where they will have to decide whether they wish to commit millions of their own dollars for a fiber network and enter into a binding contract with the company, Frazier and Shull said they maintain the same concerns about the project today as they did six months ago when they cast their votes to pull out of the agreement.
Supervisors in Rappahannock County who are a part of the majority that supported the agreement say they’re looking forward to receiving answers to the more technical questions that still linger once they receive a contract.
Frazier and Shull are both concerned about All Points’ policy that prohibits the county from seeking wireless internet services from others while doing business with the company.
“I guess I just didn't like that carrot that was dangling out in front of us,” Shull said of his decision to oppose the All Points partnership. “I still have the respect for competition and everything out here. I guess money drives the world and I'm not ate up with the money.”
In Augusta County, which has nearly ten times the population as Rappahannock County, All Points CEO Jimmy Carr is proposing to build
650 miles of fiber infrastructure for about $63 million. Augusta County would be responsible for $8.4 million of the total project cost.
In Rappahannock County, the total project would cost about $19 million and the county would owe $5.9 million of its own funds, which it has nearly covered through grants and federal stimulus dollars.
“I can't imagine another time in the history of Rappahannock County where we have had our hands tied by a vote of the majority from being able to do whatever is necessary for the best interest of the citizens,” Frazier, who’s been an outspoken skeptic of the broadband proposal in Rappahannock County, said of the company’s restrictive policy.
Frazier said he’s concerned that he hasn’t seen an itemized list of the total cost of the project in Rappahannock County, saying there’s a chance that fiber could end up costing more than anticipated. Carr has said multiple times that the county’s contribution to the project is fixed, and All Points’ financial
stake is at risk.
Piedmont Supervisor Christine Smith has been another critic of the broadband proposal in Rappahannock County, though she abstained from the vote taken in the fall on whether to seek state funding with All Points and said she opposed the company’s restrictive anti-competition policy and didn’t approve of spending large sums of stimulus money on the project.
“My hands are tied from working for a large part of my constituents … a
non- compete clause binds my hands from helping a large portion of the folks I was elected to represent. And that's that's incredibly frustrating,” Smith said.
Shull said access to broadband and high speed internet has been a persistent problem in Augusta County, and their Board has received some small grants to expand wireless internet in limited parts of the county. He said his ideal solution would be a more diversified approach to covering the county with multiple local companies, and that the federal government should have incentivized telephone companies and internet providers to service rural areas.
“Is this too good to be true?” Shull asked of All Points’ project proposal to bring fiber infrastructure to the eight counties. “If you get in here and you do this, then you get the job half done, then who’s stuck with it? Will it come back to the taxpayers here in order to finish the job?”
According to meeting minutes from Page County, Guzy, who voted against the proposal, said he was concerned about All Points’ proposed coverage map not servicing entire portions of the county. He was also concerned about spending $3.8 million in county funds to serve 3,100 homes with fiber internet.
Guzy did not return multiple requests for comment for this report.
All Points is proposing universal fiber in eight counties, and for the first 12 months, residents will be able to get a fiber cable to their home for $199. Residents whose homes are located in an area outside of All Points’ proposed coverage area for that county that don’t have high speed internet can apply for a special hookup.
Hampton Supervisor Keir Whitson said he thinks All Points CEO Jimmy Carr has done an adequate job answering questions, despite officials still unclear on the details of the company’s construction plans.
“There's no doubt that as we now approach the contract phase of this process, we are all going to have to ask those hard questions again, and we are going to have to have more concrete assurances that All Points Broadband will be able to deliver the fiber network that they have committed to delivering within the time parameters that they've indicated,” Whitson said.
There is currently no clear timeframe for when counties will receive a contract from the company.
AUGUSTA COUNTY SUPERVISOR MICHAEL SHULL:
“Is this too good to be true? If you get in here and you do this, then you get the job half done, then who’s stuck with it?”