Since 2017, Northern Neck Electric Cooperative (NNEC) has been exploring broadband internet options for its members. Initially, the co-op conducted a feasibility study to review the potential costs of providing broadband internet service within the area. When the study was completed, it revealed that a standalone fiber-to-the-home broadband project by NNEC would cost over $85 million and would not pay for itself. Additionally, the co-op studied the possibility of installing a fiber backbone to its substations with a wireless service to the end-user, but the costs for this option totaled over $45 million. Unfortunately, both NNEC broadband options were not economically feasible due to the sparse population of the remaining unserved areas of the Northern Neck.
In 2019, NNEC continued to search for other ways that it might help bring a high-speed internet connection to unserved members. Discussions were initiated with a third-party investor who was interested in the possibility of providing a modern fixed wireless service in the Northern Neck. In response, the co-op offered interested members the opportunity to take a broadband internet survey to help gauge support for a fixed wireless option. Through a bill insert, the Cooperative Living magazine, social media posts and the co-op’s e-newsletter, members were informed of the survey, which remained available from June through December 2019. During that time, roughly 10% of the co-op membership took the broadband survey to express their interest. Subsequently, NNEC learned the third-party’s investment opportunity in a modern fixed wireless system did not materialize and the co-op was again left to search for another option.
In August 2019, NNEC began discussions with the Lancaster County Broadband Authority (LCBA) in support of their efforts to expand broadband to unserved areas of Lancaster County. The LCBA has recently applied for a USDA Rural Utilities Service Reconnect federal grant to build and operate a county-wide fiber-to-the-home broadband network for all the County's unserved homes and businesses. (Note that the Rural Utilities Service is the same entity that NNEC secures its loan funds from.) NNEC has already done extensive work in the field and in the office to determine the upgrades that will be necessary to allow attachment of fiber optic cable to its poles. NNEC will work to perform upgrades in a timely manner for LCBA when it is ready to proceed.
Also, a broadband initiative authorized by the Virginia General Assembly now allows Dominion Energy to leverage telecommunication assets and fiber it will deploy to serve as middle-mile fiber to many unserved areas of the state as well as support transformation of its electric grid. Additionally, All Points Broadband, an internet service provider, expressed an interest in providing broadband to the unserved areas of the Northern Neck. As a result, NNEC has entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with Dominion Energy and All Points Broadband, along with King George County, Westmoreland County, Richmond County and Northumberland County, to explore this broadband option. NNEC’s role would help extend middle-mile fiber into the co-op’s service territory along its electric transmission lines, with All Points Broadband having access to the fiber in order to provide the last-mile fiber connections to homes and businesses. While this potential action will help to bring broadband to many unserved areas of the Northern Neck, it will also help the co-op improve its substation communications system to ensure members continue to receive reliable electric service. For more information about this initiative, you can visit fiber.allpointsbroadband.com.