BEDFORD — A long-awaited project to expand high-speed internet access to residents in Bedford County will receive more than $1 million in funding from a state communications initiative.
The office of Gov. Ralph Northam issued a news release Friday announcing nearly $5 million in grants — including a $1,040,000 grant for Bedford County — through the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI), which provides funding to extend broadband service to underserved areas throughout Virginia.
The release said 31 applications requesting about $11 million in funding were submitted. Eleven projects across the state — including Bedford County — were awarded grants this year, the release said. Amherst County also received a $127,073 grant to aid its effort to bring high-speed internet to rural underserved areas and has contracted with Nelson County-based SCS Broadband to use a handful of existing public safety towers.
“In our 21st century economy, broadband connectivity is tied to every facet of our daily lives, from education to business and healthcare,” Northam said in the release. “That’s why making high-speed internet available to every Virginian is a top priority for my administration.”
In December, Northam visited Bedford County and called the county’s broadband project a “perfect model” for other rural areas in Virginia.
“Bedford County came up with a plan,” Northam said during the December news conference at the Bedford Area Welcome Center. “They figured out how to fund it using their resources, they are seeking grant money to help fund this initiative and they are working with the private sector. This is a model that other areas in the commonwealth should follow.”
District 7 Supervisor Kevin Willis said Friday he is “absolutely excited” to hear the county was awarded the grant, which the Bedford County Board of Supervisors applied for in November.
“I am pleased to see the state is willing to make such a significant investment in Bedford County and its citizens,” Willis said. “We had high hopes when the governor came to town to discuss our plan and the amount of funds the state will be providing to us really speaks to how much he liked what we are doing.”
On Feb. 6, the Bedford County Broadband Authority — which is made up of Bedford’s board of supervisors — voted unanimously to approve an agreement between Bedford County and Roanoke-based Blue Ridge Towers (BRT) for the estimated $3.5 million project to expand high-speed internet access to about 95 percent of the county.
Bedford County Administrator Robert Hiss said the broadband project is the board of supervisors’ highest priority because more than half of Bedford County’s 764 square miles have little to no internet service.
In 2009, the county created the Bedford Broadband Authority to develop strategies to give residents better access to high-speed internet.
“I knew this was one of the biggest projects when I came to Bedford County,” said Hiss, who started work with the county near the end of February. “I’m pleased at how smoothly things are moving along.”
Under the agreement, Blue Ridge Towers will construct 10 new towers at sites throughout the county, along with installing equipment on two existing towers. The new towers would be located in the town of Bedford, Big Island, Boonsboro, Hardy, Huddleston, Mount Dumpling, Moneta and Thaxton; county-owned structures in Montvale and New London would be fitted with communications equipment, completing the 12-tower system.
Blue Ridge Towers — through its subsidiary, BRISCNET LLC —will be the wireless internet service provider on the tower system. The company also will install nearly 21 miles of fiber optic cable and will manage and maintain the towers for the county.
Bedford County will retain ownership of the towers and Blue Ridge will lease the towers from the county.
Blue Ridge Towers President Anthony Smith said his company’s contract with Bedford County lists the project’s completion date in early 2020. However, Smith said he expects the project to be completed ahead of schedule.
“Realistically, we will be able to beat that deadline by a long shot,” Smith said.
George Condyles, a consultant with Mechanicsville-based The Atlantic Group working with the Bedford County Broadband Authority, said the county has acquired property rights to all but two of the sites selected for the new towers and said Smith is expected to submit site planes for approval in early April. Condyles said construction on the new towers is expected to begin in June.
“We are really ahead of the game on this project,” Condyles said. “Most contractors would still be deciding where to put the towers. We are in really good shape right now.”
Bedford County in its upcoming budget allocated $2.4 million toward the project but now can use the more than $1 million grant to offset the project’s cost.
“We were hoping we didn’t have to use all of the funding allocated,” Hiss said. “However, we were required to at least budget for the full amount just in case.”
Willis said the board of supervisors now can consider funding other capital improvement projects (CIP) in the county with the money freed up by the grant.
“We had budgeted $2.4 million and this grant almost cuts that in half,” Willis said. “There are a lot of other CIP projects that need funding and we can decide where to apply those funds now.”