With rural economies in Southern Virginia suffering major losses in furniture manufacturing, textiles, manufacturing and tobacco production in the late 1990s, regional business leaders realized that the only way to stabilize the regional economy was to embrace a new way of thinking. The need for broadband services in the traditional economic development model had rapidly transitioned from a “nice to have” to a “must have it and more of it,” and the region’s existing telecommunications infrastructure was woefully inadequate to meet the needs of the business community. While Southern Virginia had low tax rates, available work force, transportation infrastructure, and substantial electrical power grids, the existing broadband infrastructure and lack of competitive access was a substantial roadblock in attracting new companies to the region.
Business leaders, in collaboration with telecom experts, developed a blueprint for an advanced open-access fiber-optic network for Southern Virginia. Old Dominion Electric Cooperative, an electric generation and transmission cooperative in Virginia, realized the need for this critical economic development infrastructure, and provided the leadership and funding necessary for initial business planning and strategic seed capital. The outcome was the creation of an independently-operated wholesale telecommunications company.
In 2004, the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Cooperative (MBC) was formed to solve the rural telecommunications infrastructure challenge. MBC was tasked to design, build, operate, manage and maintain a state of the art, carrier-class fiber optic network that enabled retail private sector telecommunications providers to serve the region. This task would help reduce the cost of broadband services by leveling the playing field, expand the reach of broadband in more of our rural communities, and create a competitive economic advantage for southern Virginia.
With the strong support of the Virginia Tobacco Commission (VTC) and the US Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration (EDA), MBC received $12 million in capital grants to build the first phase of the open-access fiber network in early 2004. Additional capital grants of $24 million were awarded by the VTC in 2005 and 2006 to finish the first phase of the network.
By September 2006, the first phase was completed. MBC successfully built more than 600 route miles of new fiber connecting 20 counties and 4 cities to the network, 100% of all industrial and technology business parks, and acquisition of dark fiber IRU’s between Atlanta, Georgia and Washington DC/Northern Virginia to connect the regional fiber network in Southern Virginia to strategic carrier interconnection and peering points in Tier 1 markets.
When the network was officially “lit” and our contractor turned over the network to MBC. Peoples Mutual Telephone Company in Gretna, Virginia (a Fairpoint Communications Company), was the first customer on the network. MBC provided a diverse Layer 1 transport circuit for connecting to their upstream IP transit provider.
Over the next few years, MBC enjoyed rapid growth in top-line revenue, employees, network reach, and most importantly helped in attracting new jobs and investments to the region. One of the key drivers of the MBC business model was to operate in a financially sustainable manner. Grants were used to pay for capital expenses, and revenue from customers (private sector telecom providers) pay for operating and maintaining the network. The MBC business plan called for cash-flow break even (operating revenue exceeding operating expenses) in June of 2008. Thanks to the early embrace of the private sector telecom providers who now had a robust, open-access network to use in Southern Virginia, we experienced our cash-flow break even in December of 2007, and have never looked back.
MBC was awarded $32 million for three projects from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) Broadband Stimulus Program, through the NTIA/BTOP program. $16 million was for a project to connect 100% of all K-12 schools in southern Virginia that did not already have a fiber connection. The second project was a $10 million grant to extend MBC’s open-access fiber-optic network through rural southeastern Virginia connecting community anchor institutions and telecom providers to the network. The third project was in partnership with the Virginia Tech Foundation for $6 million that built a new fiber route from Blacksburg, Virginia to Bedford, Virginia. Thanks to MBC’s highly capable in-house project management team and our contractors, those projects were completed on-time and under budget.
MBC took another important step forward in our continued growth as an organization. The membership of the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Cooperative voted in July of 2012 to amend our Articles of Incorporation to transition from a 501(c)(12) Cooperative to a 501(c)(4) non-profit corporation. Although our business model, pricing structure, and customer focus did not change, this not-for-profit designation was necessary to carry on our mission of bridging the digital divide, promoting economic development, and helping to revitalize rural communities. On July 23, 2012, we became known officially as the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corporation.
The MBC fiber network has exceeded all expectations. The broadband capacity MBC has brought to Southern Virginia has attracted numerous companies to the region and has helped to bring more than 1,100 jobs and $2.1 billion of private sector investment to the region. Most notably, MBC was a critical component in securing the Microsoft data center project for Southern Virginia, which has already announced more than $1.7 billion in private sector investment and 222 high-paying jobs.
One of MBC’s key growth initiatives is to expand network reach through strategic partnerships with other local/regional fiber optic network operators. MBC has formed LIT Networks (Local to International Transport) to enable other fiber network providers to interconnect with MBC’s extensive network and become a part of a larger network that incorporates revenue sharing as a business model. This model has proven highly successful for several years, and is now growing in size to accommodate other network providers, some of whom have received BTOP grants and are looking to generate sustainable revenues for those network investments.
We continue to look for ways to accelerate our mission of reinvesting in our communities through projects that have a social, technology and/or educational impact in Southern Virginia. Each year since 2012, we have donated more than $100,000 to support all YMCA, Boys and Girls Clubs, Head Start Programs, scholarships, and high school robotics programs in Southern Virginia. From 2012 and 2014, MBC awarded five scholarships each year to high school seniors in Southern Virginia who were furthering their education in a STEM field at a Virginia college/university. In 2015, MBC established a scholarship at each of the four community colleges in Southern Virginia for the colleges to distribute as they see would best benefit students studying in STEM-H fields at their college.
In June 2015, the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center (SVHEC) established the IT Academy to address the workforce demands of the growing data center industry in Southern Virginia by allowing the students to test for and receive industry certifications. MBC is proud to sponsor the IT Academy, as we strive to reinvest in our communities and promote economic development in Southern Virginia.
We are excited to be recognized worldwide as a model of how public investments in wholesale open-access broadband telecommunications infrastructure can generate economic development returns for local communities.
MBC is committed to providing economic development leadership to Southern Virginia by operating nearly 2,000 miles of open-access fiber optic network, providing wholesale telecommunications transport, dark fiber and colocation services. With presence in major internet peering exchange points, MBC reduces the cost of Internet access for wholesale customers and reduces the time and cost to reach customers in rural Virginia markets. MBC’s network supports job creation as a critical element in the recruitment of major commercial investments.