In the late 1990s
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, built to industrial and technology business parks in the region, and acquired 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.
MBC – The Company
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) paid for operating expenses and maintaining the network. The MBC business plan called for cash-flow break even (operating revenue exceeding operating expenses) by 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.
In 2012, 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 social welfare not-for-profit designation was necessary to carry on our mission of bridging the digital divide, promoting economic development, reducing the burden of Government, and helping to revitalize our rural communities. On July 23, 2012, we became known officially as the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corporation.
On January 30, 2019, MBC celebrated 15 years of bringing robust fiber connections to Southern Virginia for the advancement of the region.
With the December 2020 completion of the SOVA Innovation Hub in downtown South Boston, VA, MBC moved to its new corporate home on the second floor of the new building in January 2021.
Growing and Upgrading the MBC Network
In 2010, 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 all of the 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. These grant builds were completed in 2013 and added 700 miles of fiber to the MBC network.
In 2015, the Infinera DTN-X packet optical transport networking platform was deployed on the MBC network, which enabled MBC to offer terabit connection for the first time. The Mid-Atlantic Research Infrastructure Alliance (MARIA), a non-profit corporation that brings together the major research universities in Virginia to build a cyberinfrastructure, partnered with MBC and co-invested in this upgrade to support their 100 Gbps connections to Internet2 and their collaboration with other Research & Development institutions.
Virginia Beach was announced in May 2016 as the location for the first transoceanic fiber cable landing station in the Mid-Atlantic United States to support MAREA, a partnership among Microsoft, Facebook, and Telefónica. The City of Virginia Beach partnered with MBC to build a robust fiber and conduit infrastructure to support the cable landing station. The project was completed in 2017, and the first subsea cable was turned up in Virginia Beach in mid-2018.
Many upgrades were made to the MBC network in 2017. A new Infinera chassis was installed in a Richmond area POP to allow MBC to provide new services in Southern Virginia, provide an additional hand off for long haul services and reduce latency. Additionally, a third Infinera route to Ashburn was completed to provide MBC additional long-haul capacity into Northern Virginia.
In 2018, MBC made a major capital investment to expand coverage of its Next Generation High Capacity Transport Network. With the growth of high-capacity transport requirements in our region and the insatiable bandwidth demands from our customers, MBC invested in the latest optical network technology from Infinera (Flex-ILS system). This upgrade allowed MBC to expand the line system capacity from 400 Gigabits per Second to 1.2 Terabits per second, a 300% increase in capacity. The total capacity can grow to 9.6 Terabits per second on a single pair of fiber, which provides MBC a great deal of flexibility to grow high speed connections to Northern Virginia, the Subsea Cable systems in Virginia Beach, and throughout the Southern Virginia region. Upgrading the MBC network allows MBC to establish and retain relationships with technology companies that need high-capacity optical transport in the Southern Virginia region.
MBC and QTS announced in June 2020 the successful implementation of an initial field trial that demonstrated 200 gigabits per second coherent transmission over a 50 gigahertz (GHz) channel on an existing MBC long-haul route. The new capacity uses MBC’s latest line system technology, providing multiple 200G alien wavelength transmission. MBC’s open-access network approach allowed a different optical vendor to utilize MBC’s existing line system, thus maximizing options and providing more granular control for native and alien waves. The field trial showcased MBC’s ability to easily and cost-effectively scale its current wholesale optical transport network to meet growing capacity demands and route diversity requirements at the QTS Richmond NAP for carriers and internet service providers in southern Virginia as well as subsea fiber optic cable routes that land in Virginia Beach and interconnect at the QTS Richmond NAP.
In January 2021, MBC completed a major fiber infrastructure build from our node in Prince George to the QTS Richmond NAP. This 27-mile route created an MBC owned fiber route of 432 strand fiber and connected into the QTS Richmond NAP using a diverse 3rd entrance on the southern entrance of the campus. This new MBC route provides wholesale 10G, 100G, and alien wave services, as well as dark fiber, to meet the growing demands and fiber route diversity needs of customers.
An $800,000 EDA grant was approved in March 2021 to begin the engineering, design and permitting of 206 miles of open-access middle-mile fiber routes in Southern and Central Virginia that will increase broadband capacity and boost the region’s ability to withstand future economic disruptions.
As of 2021, the MBC network footprint spans 41 counties and cities in Southern Virginia with nearly 2,000 route miles of fiber stretching across the region.
One of MBC’s key growth initiatives is to expand network reach through strategic partnerships with other local/regional fiber optic network operators. MBC formed LIT Networks (Local to International Transport) in 2014 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. For more information on LIT Networks, visit https://www.litnetworks.com/.
Reinvesting in Our Communities
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.
Community Programs and Organizations
Each year from 2012 to 2015, MBC supported all YMCA, Boys and Girls Clubs, Head Start Programs, scholarships, and high school robotics programs in Southern Virginia with monetary donations.
From 2012 to 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 or 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.
The MBC Wanda Bostick Jeffress Memorial STEM Scholarship was established when Wanda Jeffress, a long-standing member of the MBC board of directors, passed away in March 2018. MBC established the scholarship to honor her legacy, granting $5,000 to be awarded to one or more graduating seniors of Halifax County High School annually. Recipients of this scholarship are pursuing higher education after graduation in a STEM field, which may include science, technology, engineering, math, or healthcare and display academic achievement, a strong commitment to STEM, and financial need.
Sponsoring Robotics in Southern Virginia
In 2012, MBC began sponsoring FIRST First Robotics Competition (FRC) teams in the MBC footprint. MBC sponsors the FIRST FRC teams in Southern Virginia as a way to support workforce preparation in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education, which is a vital component of workforce development and economic revitalization.
The MBC Challenge Cup was established in 2015 for MBC-sponsored FIRST FRC teams in Southern Virginia and recognizes the highest-ranked FIRST FRC robotics team in Southern Virginia for their accomplishments. Being named MBC Challenge Cup champion includes the rights to keep a traveling trophy at the team’s location for one year and $10,000 for their team.
MBC expanded support of robotics in Southern Virginia in 2018 by supporting the FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) teams in the region.
TV White Space Trials
In December 2013, MBC joined the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance, a global TVWS advocacy group. In 2014, MBC performed TV White Space trials with wireless ISPs in Halifax County and Charlotte County that included using TV white spaces radio technology to extend wireless broadband coverage to unserved communities that are not able to access DSL, cable modems, or other broadband technologies.
MBC partnered with Adaptrum, B2XOnline, and Microsoft Airband Initiative in 2016 to deploy a pilot project (known as the Microsoft Homework Gap Network) to test the use of TV white space technology by providing no-cost internet connection to student homes in an effort to close the homework gap for K-12 students in Halifax and Charlotte Counties. Ajit Pai, FCC Chairman, visited South Boston in July 2017 to see the Homework Network firsthand. The pilot project is now closed.
Patrick Henry Community College (PHCC) began a new “E-Patriots” e-sports gaming team. MBC’s annual contribution was used to support the e-sports program as a way to recruit students who will pursue IT Technologies academic and career paths.
MBC Day of Service
In 2018, MBC established its Day of Service, a day where MBC employees go out into the community to serve. For MBC’s first day of service in 2018, MBC employees came together to build a playset, a privacy fence, and do landscaping for a local community group. MBC’s 2019 day of service included employees giving back to the community by working with Tri River Habitat for Humanity on their newest house and installing a play set for the family. Although COVID restrictions in 2020 prevented a physical day of service from happening, MBC still helped serve the community by making a monetary donation to the YMCA of South Boston/Halifax County to support their food pantry/delivery to families who were impacted by the pandemic and needed food assistance.
Investing to Advance the Southern Virginia Economy
GoSOVA was formed in 2013 to expand the reach of MBC to aggressively engage U.S. west coast businesses, corporate site selection consultants, and professional industry associations on the benefits of expanding to Southern Virginia. MBC opened a marketing office in Santa Clara, California and hired a full time economic development professional to help market Southern Virginia and our various partners to technology companies in the San Francisco Bay Area. The initiative was successful at creating a few R&D pilot projects with west coast companies and our southern Virginia organizations. The GoSOVA initiative was also successful at cementing some long-term relationships with technology companies on the west coast that we still work with to this day.
In June 2015, MBC acquired the Tower Services Division of Gamewood Technology Group and established a new wholly owned subsidiary, MBC Towers, Inc, in an effort to meet the need for more fiber-fed towers to meet the growing demand for cellular and wireless broadband. MBC Towers was sold to some local investors in 2017.
IT Academy at SVHEC
MBC worked with Microsoft and the leadership of the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center (SVHEC) to create the IT Academy, which opened in August 2015. Students of the IT Academy are immersed in a curriculum that allows them to test for and receive CompTIA certification in A+, Network+, and Server+, preparing them with industry specific skills needed to succeed in the IT field and support our existing data center industry.
Anthony Putorek, Senior Global Workforce Development PM for Microsoft, said this of the IT Academies at SVHEC and Southside Virginia Community College (SVCC). “I’m proud to say that what we have accomplished here in Southern Virginia, at the community college and at the Higher Ed Center, has been so successful, so impactful, that Microsoft has commissioned our team to replicate this program across our global data center portfolio.”
Invest Southern Virginia
As an outgrowth of the GoSOVA initiative, MBC reinvested in economic development initiatives and formed the brand Invest Southern Virginia in 2017. This brand was created in coordination with SolskenPR, a California based Marketing and Public Relations company who have a great deal of experience working with technology companies. The Invest Southern Virginia concept is an economic development initiative designed to attract growing technology, data center and advanced manufacturing companies in the US, United Kingdom and Europe to expand and locate to Southern Virginia. Working in partnership with local and regional economic development leaders, Invest Southern Virginia markets the region to prospective national and international companies seeking a premiere east coast location with a specifically trained workforce, pro-business environment and connected infrastructure.
Invest Southern Virginia’s mission is to attract new technology, data center and advanced manufacturing companies to the region to boost economic development and build a stronger community. Joe Anwyl, a highly experienced and effective consultant based in England, now leads this initiative and continues to drive new jobs and investments to Southern Virginia.
An Entrepreneurship and Innovation Strategy for Southern Virginia
In 2019, MBC received a grant partnership with Longwood University’s Office of Community and Economic Development (OCED) to develop a regional entrepreneurship and innovation (REI) investment strategy for GO Virginia Region 3, which includes 15 localities in Southern Virginia. The resulting strategy, which driven by community engagement and best practices, offered a series of recommendations to grow Southern Virginia’s entrepreneurial and innovation economy. The strategy was officially adopted by the GO Virginia Region 3 Council in October 2020.
While this grant was ongoing, MBC, through a partnership with Microsoft TechSpark, created the SOVA Innovation Hub to focus on enhancing digital skills and entrepreneurship development in Southern Virginia.
In November 2020, MBC again partnered with Longwood’s OCED, this time through the SOVA Innovation Hub, to apply for another grant, to begin implementation of the strategy. In March 2021, the GO Virginia State Board approved the implementation grant submitted by the SOVA Innovation Hub in partnership with the Longwood OCED. Partners providing additional in-kind and cash match include MBC, the Longwood SBDC, and Hampden-Sydney College. The two-year implementation project will run from April 2021 through March 2023 and includes a four-part mission consisting of 1) creating entrepreneurial training pipelines, 2) increasing capital access for entrepreneurs, 3) convening Southern Virginia’s entrepreneurial ecosystem to create an innovation economy, and 4) the development of the design and operation plan for an innovation hub facility in Farmville that will be created and supported by Longwood University and Hampden-Sydney College.
SOVA Innovation Hub
In April 2019, MBC and Microsoft announced a plan to build the SOVA Innovation Hub in downtown South Boston, Virginia. The SOVA Innovation Hub is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization created to spark economic transformation in Southern Virginia by bringing together business and education partners to offer innovative programs that inspire people to pursue digital careers and entrepreneurship.
Construction on the facility began in December 2019 and concluded in December 2020. The new 15,000 square foot office building is located on the site of a former tobacco warehouse. At the time of construction, the SOVA Innovation Hub was the first new office building to be built in the downtown area in over 40 years.
The state-of-the-art SOVA Innovation Hub facility in South Boston, Virginia includes a coworking space (which includes flex seating, dedicated desks, and private offices), a training space, and the Microsoft Experience Center on the first floor. MBC headquarters are located on the second floor of the building.
For more information on the SOVA Innovation Hub, visit www.sovainnovationhub.com.
The MBC open-access fiber network and the projected economic impact has exceeded all expectations. The broadband capacity, market-based competition, and advanced technology and reach MBC has brought to Southern Virginia has attracted numerous companies to the region and, as of March 2021, has helped to bring more than 2,000 jobs and $3.3 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 was announced in 2010 with a $499M investment and 50 jobs. Microsoft has continued investing and growing their data center campus operations in our region and to date, has publicly announced more than $2.5B of total investment and over 350 jobs.
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. We invite you to visit our website at www.mbc-va.com, follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, and learn about the unique and creative ways we are finding to revitalize a rural economy and fundamentally change the perceptions of what it means to operate a business in a rural region!