Bedford County’s effort to improve broadband access in rural areas received two boosts this week, both partially funded by the state tobacco commission.
The Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission on Thursday awarded a $670,500 grant to the county to expand broadband.
The grant came one day after Comcast announced it would begin extending broadband services to more than 7,000 addresses in Smith Mountain Lake through a $3.5 million Last Mile Broadband Grant the tobacco commission gave the company in 2018.
Thursday’s grant is the second one Bedford County has received from the commission. In addition to a $1.04 million grant through the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative received in March, these grants will cover 50% of the cost to build out broadband in the county to unserved and underserved areas, said Traci Blido, economic development director for the county.
Blido said the Bedford County Board of Supervisors is matching the $1.71 million total of this week’s grant and the initiative’s grant to provide internet services to all of Bedford County.
“This is an exciting day for Bedford County and rural Virginia,” Blido said. “We’re thrilled to get this funding that will help us build out broadband in Bedford County.”
Blido said the grant will help build 10 new towers across the county.
Bedford County Administrator Robert Hiss said he is thankful the state is willing to invest in the expansion of broadband for citizens, businesses and the children who want to succeed in their educational endeavors.
He said the funds matched by the board of supervisors come from the fiscal year 2020 capital improvement plan.
“That’s one of the components that makes our project successful. We have studied what is needed to make it work in Bedford County, we’re so far down the line,” he said.
Hiss said the goal is to accomplish the project by the end of the year.
On Wednesday, Comcast announced it has begun installing broadband services in phases to the Smith Mountain Lake community as a part of the “Last Mile Broadband” project and is planning to contribute more than $5.8 million to the project.
The “Last Mile” project funds up to 50% of the construction for communities partnering with private sector providers to extend broadband access to unserved areas.
Blido said the work began about a month ago and will serve 7,000 addresses in Smith Mountain Lake.
Comcast said it plans to begin rolling out services to parts of the area this month with an expected completion of the project by year’s end.
Curry Martin — a former Bedford County supervisor, owner of Glenwood Oil & Automotive and resident of Smith Mountain Lake — said he will personally benefit from the broadband expansion as it will run right by his property.
He added he has heard from many people who have expressed an interest in moving to Smith Mountain Lake but haven’t because of the lack of internet service.
“This will open up more businesses,” he said Thursday. “This will be really big. So many people in this day in time, they work from home. When they move to this area, they can’t work. It’s going to be great for the county.”
Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford, who also serves on the tobacco commission, said it is nearly impossible to have economic prosperity and opportunity without broadband access.
“This has been a long time coming and persistence has paid off,” she said. “With the help from the tobacco commission, local government, private providers, the commonwealth, all working toward the same goal, it has provided results for our citizens in Bedford County.”