LOUISA COUNTY, Va. (WVIR) - A new plan announced by Louisa County Monday afternoon will extend high-speed broadband internet to every home and business in the county over the next four years. County administrators say it’s a major step in bridging the digital divide in rural and underserved areas.
In a press conference at Louisa County High School, officials describe this as bringing the county from a low-connectivity region to a fully connected one with an impact on everyone living, learning, and working there. It’s a move Louisa County Board of Supervisors Chairman Bob Babyok describes as seven years in the making: seven years trying to fix the problem of sparse internet connectivity county-wide.
“We finally come up with a superior solution, versus just trying to fill in the blanks. This is the biggest step,” Babyok said. “It’s going to take another couple years but at least everybody knows there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
The plan is made possible by a partnership between the county, the Rappahannock Energy Cooperative, Dominion Energy, and Central Virginia Electric Cooperative’s Firefly Fiber Broadband program. The energy companies will lay the fiber-optic cabling along the path of existing power lines, which will then be leased by Firefly to provide the connectivity to the county.
“All unserved, it’s not just rural, it’s unserved areas is what we’re going after,” Dominion Energy VP Joseph Woomer said., “We can take the ‘middle mile,’ out there. We use it for operational uses, the fiber; We lease out the line for the ISP; then deliver the service to the customer.”
The ability to extend fiber broadband through partnerships with electric companies was opened by a pilot program in 2020, which is now potentially being extended beyond the pilot phase. It’s a model that Louisa County sees as a long-term solution, and something that could serve as an inspiration for other rural areas around Virginia and around the country.
“There have been a lot of things tried in Louisa County, and other rural localities, over the years,” Louisa County Executive Christian Goodwin said. “I think what we’ve seen is it takes a partnership to make something like this work. I want this for Louisa, but I’d love for it to be something that people can use all across the state, and all across the nation.”
After a year of virtual and hybrid learning at Louisa County Public Schools (LCPS), it’s a development that’s also being embraced by county parents.
“I have three kids here, two in the high school, one in the middle school, and we’ve struggled since COVID,” LCPS Parent Daphne MacDougall said. “To get school work done, to just connect with friends outside of the home. This is just going to be so wonderful for Louisa County.”
“Having a child that’s in elementary school, some of the issues we have had throughout the years is not being able to do homework,” LCPS Parent Walter Barrett III said. “This year, what the pandemic has proved is that there’s an issue in the room: part of the county that does not have internet service.”
That’s something that excites LCPS students, too.
“Having a good like connection for me is very like meaningful to me because of the fact that I am a student and I’m a senior,” LCHS Senior Logan Scott said. “It’s kind of rough, I have to like go to Dairy Queen and do my homework, sometimes we run down to the church down the street.”
“We’re the first to lead this and kind of provide the example for other rural counties to follow in Virginia,” LCHS Student Sarah Schulte said. “I know lots of people who have had hard times during this pandemic. Trying to get their homework done, having to go through all kinds of things that nobody should have to do in order to do their homework, and have access to the internet.”
Beyond helping students, parents, and teachers access virtual learning materials, people living in Louisa expect that increased access to internet could be big in attracting new people to live there.
“Those living in Richmond, those living in Charlottesville, all of a sudden see Louisa is a beautiful area,” LCPS Parent Chad Hensley said “They’re working from home anyway, they’re gonna come out. I can expect an influx of professionals coming in to the county.”
The rollout of the new plan will occur over the next four years, ending in 2025 – but the county is pushing for it to be done by 2024.