A Charlotte, N.C. based fiber internet service provider is planning to bump up the number of households with broadband access in Southwest Virginia in the coming months. By the end of next year, Brightspeed – a new company formed in August 2021 – plans to bring faster, more reliable internet and Wi-Fi to over 60,000 residential and commercial locations in Campbell, Henry, Page, Rockbridge, and Smyth counties, as well as parts of Albemarle County and Charlottesville.
The company announced that it further plans an additional 70,000 fiber passings in the coming years of its network transformation program, for a total of up to 130,000 fiber-enabled locations in Virginia, one of 20 states that comprise Brightspeeds current operating territory.
“We are looking forward to the start of our ambitious network build in Virginia,” said Tom Maguire, Chief Operating Officer of Brightspeed. “Households and businesses have a critical need for reliable, high-quality internet to help them accomplish what is most important, whether it is working from home, remote learning, access to healthcare, streaming entertainment, or simply staying connected with others. We are excited to offer a new choice in internet and the full capabilities of our advanced fiber network to the residents and businesses in our Virginia footprint.”
Broadband expansion has been a critical issue in the commonwealth for years, especially in the mountainous regions of the Southwest. Less than five years ago, 660,000 Virginia homes and businesses were without internet, but the state has since closed the digital divide by 90% after former Gov. Ralph Northam made the issue a top priority. His efforts were accelerated by the access to $700 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds that allowed Northam to move his previous 2028 deadline for universal coverage in the commonwealth up by four years.
Between 2018 and the end of 2021, Northam’s administration awarded $846 million in broadband grants and connected over 429,000 homes and businesses, and Northam’s successor, Gov. Glenn Youngkin, has vowed to continue working to close the broadband gap.
“Expanding access to affordable, reliable high-speed internet has been a Day One promise for Governor Youngkin,” said Secretary of Commerce and Trade Caren Merrick. “Improved broadband infrastructure will play a crucial role in jumpstarting our economy, ensuring opportunity across the commonwealth, and giving all Virginians the resources they need to thrive.”
Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick County – whose district includes Henry County – also welcomed Brightspeed’s investment in the community. “Our region has suffered from lack of new investment and deteriorating infrastructure for a long time. High-quality broadband is a must-have for our businesses, students, residents and entrepreneurs,” Williams said.
Brightspeed aims to bridge the digital divide by deploying a state-of-the-art fiber network that they say makes staying connected simple and seamless. Fiber-optic technology differs from a wireless broadband connection in that it can deliver upload speeds that are just as fast as download speeds.
“Fiber and space-based high-speed broadband can exist and complement one another, which Governor Youngkin realized on the campaign trail last year,” said Jack Kennedy, the clerk of the Wise County circuit court and a longtime advocate for bringing new technologies and industries to Southwest Virginia who has worked to lure Starlink, a new satellite internet constellation operated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, to some of the state’s most remote regions.
Meanwhile, several localities in the Southwest have launched their own initiatives to bring fiber-optics broadband to unserved areas. In 2021, Henry, Patrick and Franklin Counties
partnered with the West Piedmont Planning District Commission, RiverStreet Networks and Appalachian Power in securing a $33.5 million grant from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development’s Virginia Telecommunications Initiative that will allow broadband to reach almost every Appalachian Power customer.
Kennedy said that Appalachian Power is offering “a unique model” to provide broadband through dual use of its infrastructure. “Utilities throughout the nation need to study this particular model to expand broadband into rural areas. While it will take some time to build out the fiber, the fact that the utility is leading the way throughout much of its service area is quite commendable. Southside and southwestern Virginia will benefit over the long-term, and Appalachian Power executive wisdom in enabling broadband is to be commended,” Kennedy said.
On Tuesday, the Henry County Board of Supervisors voted to approve a contract with RiverStreet Networks to begin installation of the broadband services for the project. In order to access the grant money from the state, the county agreed to invest $3.9 million.
Brandon Martin, the county’s public information officer, said in a phone interview Thursday that the locality decided to participate in the project after assessing the community’s needs for broadband access in a survey last year. “The main reason we tried to get it was we wanted to close that gap for at least the people that didn’t have broadband, so with the help of this grant we are able to get them all hooked up to the new fiber network so they can have the best type of Internet possible,” Martin said.
In total, the project will provide broadband connections to more than 3,000 homes and businesses in Henry County, Martin said, adding that the goal is to eventually also get county residents with slower services like Digital Subscriber Lines (DSL) – which connect to the Internet through telephone lines and a modem – access to a fiber-optic network.
“We’re working through several stages to make this happen,” Martin said.