The race to increase data center capacity in a Henrico County tech park appears to be escalating as a long-time tenant prepares to triple its footprint.
QTS Data Centers is planning an expansion on 210 acres it owns in the White Oak Technology Park at 6020 Technology Blvd. in the county’s Sandston area.
The proposed project, which was submitted to the county’s planning division this month, would involve construction of about 1.2 million square feet of new data center space to rise between QTS’ existing 1.3 million-square-foot campus to the west and the Facebook data center site under construction to the east, according to submitted site plans.
Plans call for three 330,000-square-foot data center buildings, and a 165,000-square-foot data facility.
In addition to QTS’ eastern expansion on its campus, the company also updated its plans for another development, now dubbed “Project Isaac,” that’s set to rise on about 73 acres south of its campus along Portugee Road.
The firm originally submitted preliminary plans for that project in March to build a 710,000-square-foot data center building on county-owned property.
While the 710,000-square-foot building remains part of the plans, a second 355,000-square-foot data center building has been added to the mix, according to submitted site plans, bringing the total amount of new data center development assigned to Project Isaac to 1.1 million square feet.
Between its eastern campus expansion and Project Isaac, QTS is set to deliver about 2.3 million square feet of new data center space to the area, planning documents show.
The two QTS projects, while separate, are being fast-tracked by county planners.
Once completed, QTS will own and operate about 3.6 million square feet of data center space in the White Oak Technology Park, becoming its largest data center tenant.
QTS’ neighbor, Facebook, will have 2.4 million square feet of data center space once it completes a $750 million expansion of three 450,000-square-foot buildings on its 172-acre campus in late 2020.
Facebook recently completed the first phase – two buildings totaling 970,000 square feet – that opened in the first half of 2019.
Kevin Snead, QTS Richmond site director, did not immediately respond to a call for comment Monday afternoon. Anthony Romanello, Henrico County Economic Development Authority executive director, forwarded a request for comment about the two projects to QTS.
QTS is a publicly traded data center operator that owns and maintains several facilities across North America and Europe, and one in Hong Kong.
QTS’s Richmond facility is one of nine mega data centers the company operates in the country, including one in Chicago and two each in Atlanta, New Jersey and Texas. The company’s data center footprint spans nine states and three continents, with centers in Amsterdam, London and Hong Kong.
Highly secured, the complex employs about 300 security cameras that monitor the property 24-7. QTS contracts with security company Allied Universal Security for those and other services. The facility is highly automated, requiring only about 30 employees across sales and operations to be on site at any given time.
Previously used as a semiconductor plant for manufacturing computer chips, the facility now is used to store data center capacity for large financial institutions, banks, and multiple federal and regional government agencies. The company’s White Oak Technology campus caters to federal government entities, according to its website.
It also serves as a connection hub for two subsea cables, called MAREA and BRUSA, that provide enhanced international connectivity via the Virginia Beach Cable Landing Station, where the cables connecting data centers in South America and Europe come ashore.
Called the QTS Richmond Network Access Point, the hub provides connections to what the company describes as “the lowest latency and highest capacity ever deployed between continents.”
The technology is said to provide the fastest internet speeds ever, capable of transmitting all the world’s movies across the Atlantic Ocean in 42 seconds, Romanello said during a tour of the facility in June.
“We’re talking about billions and billions of bits of data that are getting moved, where even a microsecond could give somebody an advantage,” he said. “Imagine if you’re a day trader, where that fraction of a second makes a difference.”
Data center surge
Romanello and others have been making an effort in recent months to get the word out about QTS Richmond as an alternative to Ashburn and other data center hubs for businesses seeking international high-speed internet connections.
Earlier this year, QTS hosted an inaugural summit that attracted local and regional government leaders and speakers from Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and Telxius.
The overseas cables’ arrival over the past two years have helped fuel a surge in data center development in the region, coupled with lowered state and local tax rates to help attract such facilities.
The state offers a sales and use tax exemption specific to data centers, and in 2017, Henrico County approved an 88 percent reduction in its business personal property tax on data centers. Earlier this year, Chesterfield County lowered its data center tax rate to be the lowest in the state.
Romanello said such reductions, combined with Virginia’s power rate structure and Henrico’s available infrastructure, attracted the cables – driven in large part by Facebook and Microsoft – to be located here. He also credited Henrico’s investment in White Oak and the QTS site, where Infineon Technologies and later Qimonda operated before the semiconductor closed abruptly 10 years ago.
“It goes back to having a great partner in QTS – the fact that the county took over this property over 20 years ago, put $44 million into the infrastructure for roads, water and sewer. The fiber followed that,” Romanello said. “You’ve got this public-private partnership that has facilitated QTS and their investment, Facebook, and all the others that are here and that are going to be coming.”
Twyla Powell, Henrico EDA’s business attraction manager, said the cable connection makes the region an attractive alternative, particularly to international companies seeking high-speed connections with their headquarters overseas, without having to be routed through Ashburn, New York and other, busier hubs.
“It’s giving the network more options of places to go, where the traffic can be routed more efficiently and with a different path,” Powell said this summer. “Speed and latency are two key things, but also having multiple paths keeps the internet more available overall. If you can’t get into the country from New York, you can get in from Richmond. That’s all really good for the whole state.”
Powell said the hub also provides benefits to regional businesses and internet users.
“In Southside Virginia, all those people that use Mid-Atlantic Broadband, there’s a connection for Mid-Atlantic Broadband to this map,” she said. “So all those people served in the Southside of Virginia will have access to these higher-speed networks without having to travel up to Ashburn, which is the busiest internet place in the world, when all they might need is to just come to Richmond.”
BizSense reporter Jonathan Spiers contributed to this story.
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Fiber-to-the-home gains toehold in county
Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative has completed the initial stage of fiber-to-the-home internet service in Halifax County with the deployment of roughly 5.5 miles of fiber optic cable in the Clays Mill and Crystal Hill areas.
The Chase City-based cooperative, through its EMPOWER subsidiary, will soon complete a 23-mile stretch of fiber network in Halifax County, encompassing the 5.5 mile portion that has been deployed, plus an additional segment extending north on L.P. Bailey Highway and west in the vicinity of Republican Grove, on Pumping Hill Road.
Through the project, EMPOWER will soon be able to offer ultra-fast broadband internet service to an estimated 479 county homes and businesses.
“We’re continuing to build it out,” said David Lipscomb, MEC vice president of member and energy services. While more work lies ahead before the system can be activated, Lipscomb said EMPOWER will be notifying residents on the path of the fiber network that service will soon be available, and customer requests will be solicited in the next several weeks.
“Once they [technicians] light the fiber up, we can begin taking applications from the folks who live along that line for lines to their homes,” Lipscomb said.
MEC is running fiber optic cable, considered the fastest and most robust mode of internet transmission, to its electrical substations, office sites and other infrastructure in the cooperative’s six-county southern Virginia service area from Greensville to Pittsylvania counties. The cooperative’s for-profit EMPOWER subsidiary will provide retail packages to homes and businesses that lie within 1,000 feet of the “middle mile” network that links up MEC’s installations.
EMPOWER, which currently has about 60 retail customers in Mecklenburg and Charlotte counties, is offering home and business packages of varying speeds, ranging from 50 megabytes per second (Mbps) all the way up to 300 gigabytes for large industrial and business users.
The monthly rate for a base package of 50 Mbps is $69.95, said Lipscomb, while 1 gigabyte service for business and heavy household use is available for $299.00 monthly. In testing the service, the 50 Mbps speed proved to be plenty capable of handling the needs of most households, he said.
“We were able to run five TVs, streaming video, a computer, a laptop and a ring doorbell [with video feed] and everything worked flawlessly,” he said. “It stood up to the test of what was going on and took care of business without any problems. So we were excited about that.”
The already-deployed portion of the network runs from Clays Mill Elementary up Clays Mill Road to MEC’s Crystal Hill substation on Crystal Hill Road (Route 610.) In coming weeks, the middle-mile fiber backbone will be extended north along L.P. Bailey Highway (Route 501) and out towards MEC’s Hickory Grove substation on Pumping Hill Road (Route 667). The network also will run along Bradley Creek Road.
“We’re looking at getting service to those areas in the latter part of this year or the early part of next year,” said Lipscomb.
MEC’s first-stage rollout comes as Halifax County’s other plans to provide broadband service to the countryside have run into delays. Members of the Board of Supervisors have expressed displeasure with the slow pace of wireless broadband expansion by the county’s private sector partner, SCS Broadband, based in Nelson County. County Administrator Scott Simpson has since suggested that the county should engage Dominion Virginia Power to see if the utility will establish a pilot project in Halifax along the lines of what MEC is doing.
“We’ve had conversations with them on broadband projects,” said Simpson. Dominion has existing fiber links between its substations in Halifax County, but only recently has the option opened up for Dominion to become a middle-mile network provider — leasing its fiber cable to third-party internet service providers (ISPs.) This potential business model for Dominion is the result of legislation enacted this year.
The MEC/EMPOWER roll-out in Halifax County is funded in part by a $2.6 million grant from the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, also known as the Virginia Tobacco Commission. The tobacco grant provides matching funds for MEC’s investment in its network.
To carry out its plans, MEC tapped into the fiber backbone maintained by Mid-Atlantic Broadband. MBC’s backbone runs out to Clays Mill Elementary, and MEC builds out its lines from there.
“The deployment of high-speed internet is certainly a high priority for the Commission, and over the last decade we have made a considerable investment in middle mile fiber deployment through Mid-Atlantic Broadband,” said Ed Owens, one of Halifax County’s representatives on the tobacco commission.
In a statement released by MEC, Owens praised the cooperative for its investment in fiber-to-the-home service: “To deploy this long-awaited last mile segment of fiber to the doorstep of our students and businesses is a considerable and costly challenge … but Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative has stepped up to take it on and make a difference in our county’s quality of life.”
In the coming year, MEC expects to begin extending fiber optic cable — either buried underground and strung from power poles — to homes and businesses in five other areas of Halifax County: northwest Halifax County around Nathalie, lower Liberty, Meadville to Route 57 (Chatham Road), Omega to Virgilina and areas north of Crystal Hill. Once complete, the network will offer high-speed internet access to an additional 2,215 potential customers.
In tandem with Halifax County, MEC/EMPOWER has applied for $1 million in grant funding from the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI) to pay for extending fiber cable to the five areas. VATI is a program administered by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development. A decision on the grant request is expected by late December.
MEC is planning to invest $2.9 million of its own money in the five-area project, for a total cost of roughly $4 million.
One source of funding for the cooperative’s plan is USDA Rural Development, which recently awarded a $3.8 million loan to the cooperative to build fiber network infrastructure in southern Brunswick County. The payback period on that loan is 23 years at very low interest, said Lipscomb.
“It makes it easier to do, where the business case [for repaying the loan] works out quite well” using revenue generated from future customer growth, said Lipscomb.
MEC’s grand design is to deploy 135 miles of fiber optic cable in Pittsylvania, Halifax, Charlotte, Mecklenburg, Brunswick and Greensville counties, offering ultra-high speed service to thousands of homes and businesses within 1,000 feet of the lines. While the project remains in the early stages, Lipscomb said MEC/EMPOWER plans to have the entire network completed by the end of 2020 or the beginning of 2021.
He said the cooperative has lined up funding to move forward with the full project, with MEC members making it plain that the need for high-speed service across the service area is acute.
“We’re a co-op. Our members have told us ‘we need some help,’ and when your members talk, you listen,” said Lipscomb.