The beauty of staying in a job for a while is that you get to stand witness to some incredible journeys.
Now in a county that has many people with 30, 40, or 50 years working in the same job, my measly seven years with the Powhatan Today is a drop in the bucket by comparison. But for the purposes of this column, it was just long enough to be here for a good portion of events leading up to a milestone in Powhatan’s history.
While I started working here in 2014, I was actually living in Chesterfield County at the time. Say what you want about city/suburban living, but I liked having ready access to shops, weekly trash pickup, and, most importantly for my job, reliable high-speed internet. So in the way of a person who doesn’t live in a community she is learning about, I was not aware at first of the sheer volume of Powhatan County residents without access to any kind of internet service, much less a high-speed connection.
A big turning point, I believe, for the county came on Oct. 26, 2015. An information meeting was held in the Village Building focused entirely on broadband. A panel of county officials gave an overview of the situation the county was facing, which was bleak. The message I walked away with that night was the big companies had all the control when it came to deciding when and if they would bring service to the county, and there was little local government officials could do to compel or incentivize them.
Dr. Eric Jones, superintendent, was one of the panelists that night, and at the time he talked about the challenges for students who didn’t have access to internet at home, which in the education world is called the “digital divide.”
But what made the biggest impression on me that night was that the meeting was attended by 77 people. We have had some larger meetings since then on really hot-button issues, but at the time, I think it was the bigger turnout I had seen at a county meeting. I believe the board of supervisors also was struck by what they heard from residents that night.
Long before COVID was an issue, one woman talked about being forced to work from home and have the internet service to do so or lose her job. Several people talked about buying houses in Powhatan believing they would have access to broadband only to receive a rude awakening when they moved into their homes and found it wasn’t available. Most surprising of all was hearing a woman say she was willing to pay more taxes to have access to broadband. You have to be desperate if you are volunteering to pay more taxes, right?
The years since have had a few ups but way too many downs in this rollercoaster of a broadband journey. We heard presentation after presentation about what was out there on the market and what was or wasn’t possible in Powhatan and saw increasing frustration on the supervisors through the years that the experts they were turning to for help either couldn’t or wouldn’t help. I know it was a major frustration for every one of them through the years.
That is why I am sure it was an incredibly proud and gratifying moment for the supervisors and staff to make the recent announcement about the partnership with Dominion Energy and Firefly Fiber Broadband that promises to see almost universal internet coverage for those Powhatan County residents who want it by 2024 (See full story on 1A).
This project, which will involve laying 192 miles of fiber optic cable, mostly in the western and northern parts of the county, has the potential to serve 2,016 “unserved passings,” which could either be commercial or residential customers. Later that evening at the school board meeting, Jones said that would see the families of an estimated 870 Powhatan students gaining access. Talk about bridging the digital divide!
When I think about the winding country roads, long gravel driveways, and houses so tucked away you almost need a compass to find them, hearing the words “universal coverage” sounds like a tall order. But man won’t it be exciting if it comes to fruition.
This moment is absolutely a victory for the current board members, who not only worked the problem through a pandemic and made the partnership with entities like Firefly and Dominion, but stepped out and made the final decision to commit at least $3 million of the county’s American Rescue Plan funds and up to $5.3 million if they can’t get addition grant funding to this project. It is also a victory for every board member, staff member, resident, and community partner who has been working on this problem for years. I am sure they felt like beating their heads against a wall each time they hit a new dead end, but they kept going in various ways, trying to find a solution, and that mattered.
If they stick to the timeline, we still won’t have universal coverage until 2024, which means many residents and businesses still have a while to wait depending on where they are in the connection process.
But as trite as it may sound, being able to say the end is in sight, while not perfect, is definitely progress in the right direction.
Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.