By Nick Minor, King George Director of Economic Development & Tourism

In February of 2020, Dominion Energy, Northern Neck Cooperative, and All-Points Broadband approached the County about a joint venture to bring high-speed internet to underserved residents of King George County and the Northern Neck. The project involves Dominion Energy updating their substations throughout the region with fiber-optics and then utilizing existing distribution lines from Dominion and Northern Neck Coop to deliver broadband to underserved residents. Underserved is classified by the accessibility to internet speeds of 25 megabytes per second download and 3 megabytes per second upload. Anything more than that would classify someone as having adequate internet service. Leveraging the near $10 million dollar investments made by the private sector, the Northern Neck Planning Commission submitted a Virginia Telecommunications Initiative or VATI grant application to receive matching funds from the State. The localities put in $1.2 million combined of their own money to offset the costs of connection fees for their underserved residents. Pricing for the service begins at $60 with speeds of 50/50 and can go up to $150 for a gigabyte connection.

This project is a major economic development initiative that will require cooperation from businesses and residents located near interstate 95 through south Stafford County down the Northern Neck into Northumberland. Just the fiber backbone piece alone is a 217 middle-mile deployment.

This project cannot happen soon enough, COVID-19 instantly created an emergency demand for high-speed broadband, and that need continues to grow every day. While we return to some social normalcy due to vaccine efforts, the workplace may have changed forever. Employers in major markets that have spent thousands of dollars a month on leases are beginning to downsize and deploy a hybrid approach of in-office and telework. Federal government agencies are looking to decentralize their offices in Washington D.C., creating new opportunities for smaller markets like King George and the Fredericksburg region.

In January of 2021, the Virginia Governor’s office announced that the region would receive its VATI grant of $10.3 million in support of the project matching Dominion, Northern Neck Coop, and All-Points Broadband contribution. This funding will cover phase 1, which covered the majority of Northern Neck residents. Phase 2 was announced a month later when All-Points Broadband was awarded $8.2 million in federal grants from the FCC or Federal Communications Commission. This funding was a part of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund launched under the Trump administration.

The project will cover approximately 5,000 residents and 31 businesses throughout King George and the Northern Neck. It leverages local, state, and federal dollars to cover the majority of underserved residents. Unfortunately, not every resident will be covered by this project. Government regulations strictly prohibit utilizing government dollars to encroach on existing ISPs or internet service providers’ territory. The County will continue to work with our existing ISPs to ensure everyone is covered, but these projects are extremely capital intensive and require proper planning.

Additionally, the impact of the Northern Neck broadband project will be substantial for the recruitment of future businesses and expanding existing businesses. A good example could be a manufacturing company that wants to expand by purchasing new equipment or machinery. Still, it requires a high-speed fiber-optic connection that could not have been available before. New equipment brings in more business, creates new jobs, and eventually, the business outgrows its existing space.

We are now in the execution phase of this initiative, and I am positive that many King George residents have received notifications by mail from Dominion regarding easements or right of ways to their properties. Dominion is planning to begin its backbone infrastructure project by mid to late summer, and the first home installations should begin in the fourth quarter of 2021. These are projections without cooperation from landowners; without a doubt, this project will become delayed. This is one of the heaviest lifts of this project; no one should blindly sign any documentation unless they fully understand what is being asked of them. This is the reason Dominion has contracted out their easement and right of way process to HMI Technical Solutions. Their team and with support from local governments are here to answer questions regarding the easement and right of way process. If you have any questions, please contact HMI Technical and direct questions related to supplemental easement agreements for this project to Heather Krauss hkrauss@hmiservices.com or Kelli Miller kemiller@hmiservices.com. If you would like to speak to someone from the County, you can contact my office directly.