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June 17, 2021

Rural Fauquier could get fiber optic broadband

Stock Photo
Recent regulatory changes and government grants make it possible to run fiber optic cable to remote areas, where large telecommunications companies have refused to make that investment.
If you want to achieve fiber to the home in unserved areas, you really need to think about a whole community approach.
— All Points Broadband CEO Jimmy Carr
By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Editor
His Leesburg firm and its partners can provide what has seemed impossible — fiber optic broadband service to homes in remote areas of Fauquier County, the CEO said.

“We have a strategy for closing the digital divide in your county. . . a single, turnkey solution,” Jimmy Carr of All Points Broadband told the county broadband authority (the board of supervisors) last week. “We have active projects in Loudoun and Culpeper.

“Our approach in Fauquier would be expanding both of those . . . . It’s more cost-effective and more competitive.”

Comcast and Verizon have refused to run fiber optic cable to areas such as Hume and Somerville because distance and low population density fail to justify the costs.

But, recent regulatory changes, along with federal and state funding, have encouraged Dominion Energy, NOVEC and Rappahannock Electrical Cooperative, all of which serve parts of Fauquier, to run “middle mile” fiber in rural areas with poor or no connectivity.

Dominion and electrical co-ops have partnered with All Points to serve rural communities in nine Virginia counties. All Points also serves areas of Kentucky, Maryland and West Virginia.

> Video at bottom of story

Fauquier’s supervisors in fiscal 2018 committed up to $20.6 million over five years to address rural connectivity and appointed themselves as the new broadband authority’s five-member board to oversee that effort. So far, the initiative has relied solely on wireless connections.

The authority committed up to $150,000 per installation to build towers and equip existing structures at 15 sites, with Florida-based Data Stream Broadband as the internet service provider. The agreement includes a revenue sharing plan, which has returned about $60,000 to the county.

After two years, Data Stream has about 600 customers here and the county has spent only several million dollars on the joint venture, broadband authority Chairman Rick Gerhardt (Cedar Run District) said last week.

The PATH Foundation also has provided hundreds of thousands in grants for rural broadband here, including mobile WiFi hotspots during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additionally, the county will receive $13.8 million in federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, with broadband expansion among the few allowable uses.

That means Fauquier could pump millions into rural fiber if the All Points plan comes to fruition.

“There’s this notion that if we gradually chip away, you’re on the path to universal broadband,” Mr. Carr told the board during a June 10 afternoon work session. “If you want to achieve fiber to the home in unserved areas, you really need to think about a whole community approach” and not leave out “marginal areas” because of low population density.

To make it work financially, All Points needs to recover its capital investment with “not more than 4-1/2 years of top line revenue,” he said.

But, that represents an average, meaning areas with faster payback offset those that cover costs more slowly, Mr. Carr added.

The joint venture would target “unserved” areas of Fauquier. Virginia defines those as places without any service — wired or wireless — that provides download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second and uploads of 3 mpbs.

But, the federal funding program defines unserved as areas without wired broadband of those minimum speeds.

Running fiber to rural areas requires going through places with better service, meaning customers there also could subscribe, Mr. Carr said.

Dominion and the electrical cooperatives would install “middle mile” fiber, with All Points running “last mile” fiber to homes, using utility company poles and rights-of-way.

If Fauquier approves a proposed memorandum of understanding with All Points, its representatives quickly would visit rural areas to get accurate data on levels of service, according to Mr. Carr.

Applications for the next, $50-million round of Virginia broadband expansion grants must be submitted by Sept. 14. If everything proceeded with All Points’ proposal, the company could have a plan for wiring rural areas of Fauquier “within a year,” the CEO said.

What about emerging systems such as Starlink? asked Mr. Gerhardt.

Elon Musk founded Starlink, which plans to deploy almost 1,600 low-orbit satellites to provide service, with the promise of better performance than other celestial systems.

“I’m a beta user of Starlink, and I’m impressed with the speeds I see,” Mr. Gerhardt said.

“There’s always on gonna be competition,” Mr. Carr said. “We welcome competition; it keeps people honest . . . .

“In the end, fiber to home will always be the superior solution . . . if properly priced.”

In Culpeper County, All Points fiber-to-the-home service starts at $49.95 — normally $99.95 — plus a $100 equipment and setup fee. It offers more expensive packages.

For some locations — along with connectivity aboard ships and planes, Starlink could offer the best solution, Mr. Carr admitted. But, it remains unknown how the satellite system will perform with heavier traffic, he suggested.

Despite its relatively low number of Fauquier subscribers, “DataStream lit a fire under every other competitor; all of them started to upgrade,” Mr. Gerhardt said. “Again, we’re at the point where we need something more.”

He wants more information about the county’s potential cost and potential revenue sharing if it partners with All Points.

“I’m intrigued,” Mr. Gerhart said. “I definitely want to purse it and see where this goes.

“The timing is right, and a solution like this with fiber certainly makes a lot of sense.”

Chris Granger (Center) agreed: “I’d like to see more on this.”

Federal and state funding, along with partnerships with electricity providers, make this “truly a once-in-a-generation opportunity for your community,” Mr. Carr said.

County government’s lawyers will review All Points’ proposed memorandum of understanding with Fauquier. If the broadband authority OKs the agreement, field surveys and grant applications would quickly follow, according to Mr. Carr.

Contact Editor “Lou” Emerson at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or 540-270-1845.

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