Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative’s Empower Project Receives $2.6 M Trrc Broadband Grant
On Thursday, March 8, the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission (TRRC) met and approved Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative’s request for a $2.6 million grant to deploy 135 miles of last-mile fiber broadband across Southside Virginia through its subsidiary, EmPower Broadband Cooperative (EBC). “Last mile” is the terminology utilized to describe the final leg of a broadband connection from mainline fiber to a home or business. The application for this grant was submitted in November 2017; and receiving approval is the culmination of the dedicated efforts of MEC’s staff, board of directors, and a number of our area’s legislators and citizen members on the TRRC. The grant will cover one-half of the $5.2 million fiber-to-the-premises pilot project.
John Lee, president and CEO of Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative (MEC), commented, “We are pleased and excited to receive these funds and we are eager to get EmPower Broadband Cooperative up and running and bringing value to Southside Virginia.” Lee indicated that a tremendous amount of work went into the application, and even more into the process, and the cooperative extended its sincere thanks to the many who played critical roles in MEC receiving the grant. He singled out Halifax Mayor Ed Owen, Delegates James Edmunds and Tommy Wright, Senator Bill Stanley, and several other members of the Commission who stepped up for Southside Virginia and those they represent and Lee emphasized, “Ed Owen’s role in our success at the Commission cannot be understated, he aggressively carried the banner for MEC‘s application and we are grateful for his effective leadership.”
Lee went on to say, “Access to fast, high capacity broadband is no longer a luxury, it is a necessity, and from that perspective, it’s a travesty that rural Virginia has been left behind to fend for itself. Extending fiber-optic cable to our substations presents a unique opportunity for MEC to utilize those resources to the greater benefit of those we serve and, through EmPower, deliver the best in internet service to both unserved and underserved students, residents, and businesses throughout our service territory. Receiving the Tobacco Commission grant funding allows us to begin the substantial task of addressing the digital divide between Southside Virginia and urban areas, and provide a service that’s a difference maker and has a proven impact on a region’s social and financial health.
“Electric cooperatives are, far and away, the best-positioned entities to bring ultra-high-speed broadband to the unserved or underserved rural areas of the Commonwealth, and MEC has been down this path before, providing electric service in the 1930s when no one else would. This time, we are addressing the injustice by leveraging a vast network of existing infrastructure including easements, poles, and wires that connect every home and business in our service territories. Several Virginia electric cooperatives are already investing in fiber to accommodate increasing communications needs and, in those instances, the only remaining step is deploying fiber to the doorstep of the homes and businesses to whom they provide electric service. While the story of rural “intensification” is still being written, it is clear that the electric cooperatives will have a significant effect on provisioning last-mile broadband services. We are committed to bringing economic and educational opportunities back to our region and believe this effort is a strong step towards meeting that objective,” Lee stated.
MEC will deploy fiber cable to connect its substations from Gretna to Emporia and points in between. The EmPower pilot program, designed to prove surveyed estimates and fine-tune best practice construction techniques, will enable members within 1,000 feet of the fiber backbone to subscribe to the ultra-high-speed internet service. Entry-level services at 50 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 50 Mbps upload will be offered at a monthly cost of $65-$75 including a Wi-Fi-enabled fiber optic router. This speed and bandwidth will enable the use of video streaming on multiple phones, tablets, and televisions. Further, as the pilot progresses, MEC will offer Voice over IP (VoIP) telephone service.
The retail fiber-to-the-premises pilot will serve portions of Brunswick, Charlotte, Greensville, Halifax, Mecklenburg, and Pittsylvania counties, and construction is anticipated to be complete within 26 months, well before the 36-month period required by the grant. Upon the successful completion of the pilot, MEC and EmPower will evaluate the feasibility of expanding broadband service to the remaining portions of its electric service area and beyond.
In addition to the TRRC grant, MEC and EmPower are evaluating multiple additional opportunities for grants, including Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Connect America Funds, to assist in deploying fiber-to-the-premises throughout Southside Virginia.
MEC has already initiated material procurement for portions of its fiber backbone with the first deployment slated for the Bracey area of Mecklenburg County, and the Shockoe community of Pittsylvania County. The retail pilot, offered by EmPower Broadband Cooperative, will be open to members along the route, but MEC sees the opportunity to open service to those in nearby communities with the attainment of future grants. A deployment schedule will be released within the coming weeks as planning continues.
David Jones, chairman of the MEC board of directors, comments, “MEC’s priority remains providing the best in electric service; however, our EmPower Broadband offering presents an intersection of two needs. Our electric cooperative’s ever-increasing need for data communications has created an opportunity for our broadband cooperative to deploy fiber resources for high-speed internet to our members. It is unacceptable that to complete their homework assignments and have access to the unlimited educational resources available through the internet, students in many of the areas we serve must go to a library or sit in a restaurant that offers Wi-Fi. Our families deserve more… and when it is financially feasible… MEC is compelled to provide it.”