By Joe Banish
High-speed Internet is on the way for many rural Tidewater residents, businesses and community organizations.
Suffolk town officials were joined by those from Isle of Wight and Southampton counties and a host of other local dignitaries for the official inauguration of the new broadband internet project on Thursday July 14 at Southwestern Elementary School.
Aided by a grant from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, as well as private telecommunications investment, officials said it was a big step forward in ensuring widespread broadband coverage.
The $35 million initiative will bring broadband service to approximately 12,000 homes, churches and businesses in the city and counties.
Prior to this project, rural Internet service was limited.
“Our town has been challenged to extend this service to our rural community, due to its vast landmass,” said Suffolk Mayor Michael Duman.
Of the. Emily Brewer of the 64th District, who chairs the House Communications, Technology and Innovation Committee, greeted the project with a hint of irony.
“I don’t have broadband in my house yet,” she told those gathered, despite her role in addressing the issue in the state legislature.
Throughout the ceremony, politicians and business leaders agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting disruptions were a catalyst in finalizing the project. Namely, school closures and teleworking which required access to high quality internet.
Officials at the ceremony touted the economic and educational benefits of broadband access.
“Every American deserves access to reliable, high-speed data,” said Eric Collins, director of government affairs for Charter Communications, the internet service provider associated with the project.
Collins highlighted Charter’s commitment to affordability and digital literacy, through its “digital education grant”. This program works with non-profit organizations to educate users on the benefits and best uses of broadband.
Another economic advantage of this project is a very substantial agricultural sector.
According to Southampton County Supervisory Board member Chris Cornwell, 23% of the land covered by the scheme is farmland. Thus, farmers will benefit from “improved GPS technology and record keeping, as well as data sharing capability from seed and fertilizer dealers”, he said.
Although the project is still in its infancy, funding has been secured and public support is strong, officials noted. When completed, the expansion of broadband to previously underserved communities will help rural residents access resources critical to their economic, educational and personal vitality.
The three localities and the planning district commission applied for and received a $21.1 million grant from the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative of the state Department of Housing and Community Development. Local money and funds from Charter, which operates under the Spectrum brand in Suffolk, will account for the additional $14 million cost of the project.
The project is a key part of the Hampton Roads Regional Broadband Initiative. It is expected to take advantage of the region’s regional fiber ring being built by the Southside Network Authority.
“Having worked with community leaders over the past few years to work towards this reality, I am incredibly excited about the positive impact this will have for residents and business owners in every locality,” Del noted. Brewer, “Ensuring our farmers, businesses, students and families have access to broadband is vital as electricity is for our homes.