PRINCE GEORGE – One year ago last week, Prince George County, the county’s industrial development board, and Prince George Electric Cooperative all joined forces in a unique private-public partnership with the goal of bringing more residents and businesses online with reliable, fiber-based broadband internet service.
During the Prince George Board of Supervisors’ regular meeting in June, county leaders were briefed by officials with PGEC Enterprises, the subsidiary overseeing the electric cooperative’s broadband internet division, who gave a progress report on how the rollout of their fiber-to-the-home project is going, noting they remain ahead of schedule in regards to the number of new customers brought online through the project.
Speaking on behalf of the cooperative was PGEC Vice President of Engineering Casey Logan and during his remarks, he explained that the since the county and the cooperative entered into their agreement one year ago, they have interconnected 131 members of their fiber network, providing them with high-speed internet services.
Those 131 customers do not include the roughly 50 other customers who were connected to PGEC’s fiber-optic network in 2016 as part of the pilot project along West Quaker Road between U.S. Route 460 and State Route 156. When combined, PGEC Enterprises is the internet service provider to over 180 members, both residential and business.
Logan went on to say they still have around 100 currently outstanding applications by residents and businesses who want to be connected with PGEC and receive internet services from the cooperative, noting those applicants should be online by the end of the summer, putting the estimated total new connections at over 230 only 15 months into their four-year agreement with Prince George County.
In 2017, the Prince George County Board of Supervisors voted to transfer $1 million from the county’s annual spring borrowing that was earmarked for broadband expansion to the county’s industrial development board following a compelling pitch by PGEC President Mike Malandro that year, where, following the successful implementation of the cooperative’s pilot program where over half of those homes in the area took the service and remain customers currently, they would expand this service to other parts of the county as the cooperative built out their fiber-optic network as part of their efforts to create a “smart grid” to link their electric substations.
The bright red/yellow line being shown along Route 156 and several other routes of Prince George represents PGEC’s backbone fiber connection being installed to link the cooperative’s substations. That backbone will serve as a branching-off point for their fiber-to-the-home broadband internet service for residents and businesses.(Prince George County)
From that backbone, connections would be branched off to reach neighborhoods and those people meeting the requirements of connection, namely being “within 1,000 feet of a roadway,” would be eligible to receive service from PGEC Enterprises, which provides speeds of 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up to customers at a cost of $82 per month, including a leased router.
Despite being asked if the county could do a phased approach of $500,000 in 2017 and the remainder the following fiscal year, officials with the company stressed that being provided the entire $1 million would help in gathering materials needed for the project and ensure proper rollout and implementation.
In June, the Prince George IDA agreed to provide the $1 million in funding to PGEC Enterprises in the form of a grant and all three parties, PGEC Enterprise, Prince George County, and the IDA entered in a contract together which stipulates PGEC Enterprises has to have “installed and made available consistent and reliable broadband service” to a minimum of 500 new subscribers by the end of their agreement term, July 1, 2021. Those customers part of the West Quaker Road pilot project do not count toward that 500-customer benchmark.
If PGEC Enterprises is unable to reach that minimum benchmark by the end of the contract, they would be considered “in default” of their contract and a clawback clause would be triggered, requiring PGEC Enterprises to pay $2,000 for every connection not completed by July 1, 2021.
The contract calls for PGEC Enterprises to construct and make fiber optic cable connections available to all public structures owned and operated by the county that is within 1,000 feet of a VDOT road, including schools, libraries, fire stations, and wireless communication towers, among others.
PGEC Enterprises will also provide internet service to the Central Wellness Center, Prince George Emergency Crew building, the Burrowsville Fire Department and the town’s community center for the residential rate of $82 per month with a leased router during the term of the agreement. When that period ends, the rate would convert to the commercial rate.
Finally, if the cooperative were to reach their 500-customer threshold prior to July 1, 2021, the agreement between the three entities would end. Twelve months into their contract, PGEC has brought on nearly over a quarter of the customers required to complete their contract with the county, according to cooperative officials, who appear to be on pace to approach the halfway point of connections by the end of this summer.
During Logan’s remarks, he revealed that the cooperative has identified South Prince George as the next stop for fiber internet rollout as part of their Phase 2 expansion. According to Logan, they have already received 90 applications for connection from those living and working in those areas.
He added that the cooperative is also looking to bring in contractors to help get their fiber-optic backbone implemented at a faster pace as they prepare to move toward South Prince George.
Prince George Electric’s unique project has garnered the attention of local and national leaders, including Congressman Donald McEachin, who sat down with PGEC in 2017 to discuss the project when it was still in its conceptual stage following its successful pilot project. (Michael Campbell)
Addressing a concern brought up by Vice-Chair Donald Hunter regarding the possibility of the Burrowsville Community Center losing their internet service from another provider, Logan said he has been in contact with people at the center and, while PGEC Enterprises’ crews are working roughly four miles away from the center, there “may be some opportunities” to get there and provide service to not only the center but the fire department building as well.
Last week’s project update also served as a chance to highlight the praise the partnership has received from other localities and organizations. According to Prince George Deputy County Administrator Jeff Stoke, the county won a Virginia Economic Developers Association award earlier this year and the county is expected to be honored by the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors and the National Association of Counties for this project later this year.
As stated one year ago and in recent communications with the media, officials with Prince George Electric Cooperative remain confident they will reach their 500-customer threshold well within the timetable detailed in their contract, but they also remain committed to continuing to expand service across and beyond Prince George County in the future.
To that end, officials with PGEC Enterprises said last week they remain in communications with neighboring Surry County following the cooperative’s pitch to supervisors in that county earlier this spring, requesting $1 million to provide internet services to potential customers in Surry as they continue to wait for service to come online from SCS Broadband, who had reported they would be online and able to provide service to customers as early as last fall, but that service has yet to be provided, even though their website last month reported they were “actively deploying internet services from the first tower located in Surry West Business Park,” adding they have plans to “[expand] to a second tower during the first half of 2018 to add coverage area in Surry County.”
In addition, earlier this year, PGEC Enterprises was granted over $1 million to help expand internet service into Sussex County.