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Fiber-to-the-home gains toehold in county

South Boston News
MEC workers string fiber optic cable for high-speed internet service in the area. / November 14, 2019


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.