By Craig Richards, The Progress-Index
PRINCE GEORGE — Residents of rural Prince George County hoping to gain broadband access are now seeing light at the end of the tunnel — or, in this case, at the end of the cable.
Since February 2017, 50 households in the county have enjoyed top-of-the-line fiber connections, with the promise of more to come.
In the fall of 2016, Prince George Electric Cooperative unveiled a pilot program that offered last-mile fiber connections. By installing a “smart grid” of large-count fibers connecting power substations across the service area, PGEC was able to develop a revolutionary process. With this structure in place, PGEC’s own linemen can efficiently lay the “last mile” of fiber from the smart grid to individual homes and businesses.
“After years of asking wireless providers, coaxial cable providers and fiber providers to enter the rural market to no avail due to negative return on investment, our solution was elegantly provided by Mike Malandro, CEO of Prince George Electric Cooperative,” said Jeffrey Stoke, Deputy County Administrator of Prince George County. “By creating a smart grid for enhanced cooperative electric operations, the oversized fiber along the route could be used by the very electric customers it passes.”
Providing a wireless option in rural Prince George and similar surrounding areas could be difficult to create profitability for providers. In the short term, initial costs would be incurred to construct sufficient towers. Reliable service from those same towers would depend on unobstructed lines of sight, limited range and additional costly upgrades as speed and capacity technology changes.
The PGEC’s “Smart Grid” promotes a “future proof” technology offering unlimited speed and capacity, as the fiber being installed offers much greater capabilities than the current need or technology requires. Since the system is being installed within the existing power structure, the efficient use of existing assets makes the cost justifiable for rural residents and businesses. The additional consumer price controls are embedded in the structure of the provider.
PGEC is a cooperative-based model, in which internet customers are members of the cooperative and the enterprise operates on a not-for-profit basis.
“We have a proprietary backbone fiber installation method that drives the cost below any previous known methods, which in turn makes cost less of an issue to bring fiber to rural areas,” said PGEC’s CEO Mike Malandro, “The industry touts 20k-60k per mile, and our initial costs are below 12k per mile.” Lower installation costs keep the end user cost lower.
PGEC Enterprises, LLC’s initial proof of concept connected 50 homes and public buildings along West Quaker Road at a cost of $82 per month for access to 30 Mbps with no data restrictions.
After the successful completion of its proof of concept pilot project, in May 2017 the Prince George County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a $1 million grant to further expand broadband service to 500 additional customers by July 1, 2021. With projections to reach the defined customer goal within 24 months, two years ahead of schedule, the cooperative is committed to bringing over 500 Prince George County residents and businesses online during and beyond their 2021 deadline.
“Once we hit 500, we are just going to keep moving,” Malandro said. “At that point, we will sit back and evaluate and see how fast we can move forward.”
To date, 150 residents in Prince George County have submitted applications for internet to the cooperative; 50 residents have already been connected in addition to the 50 during the proof of concept pilot.
“Right now, rural America is at a socioeconomic disadvantage without internet service,” said Stoke. “Students cannot complete homework assignments, parents cannot take online classes for career certification and advancement, and business owners cannot connect to the global economy from their own home.”
But the importance of sustainable, reliable broadband is not limited to residents alone. The future growth of the area is dependent on it. Renee Chapline, president and CEO of Virginia’s Gateway Region, an economic development organization, explained that increased access to high-speed internet will most profoundly affect workforce development in rural areas along the education continuum. Deployment of broadband affords rural residents the ability to access online community college and four-year university courses, providing the area with a stronger workforce, which will ultimately attract more economic development opportunities.
“Under a wireless system, as the amount of customers and required bandwidth increases, more wireless towers and base stations must be constructed and properly equipped,” said Chapline. “On the contrary, as more households and businesses connect to the fiber network, the network spreads and thus becomes more readily available and less expensive to use and to upgrade.”
PGEC is expected to expand its original technology to surrounding communities as well. Malandro said that PGEC has a grant application along with Sussex County for $1.25 million that, if approved, could enable quicker deployment of fiber and internet in the region.
PGEC’s efforts have not gone unnoticed by key state leaders. “I have been very impressed with the willingness Prince George Electric Co-op has taken to offer broadband service to the region,” said state Sen. Frank Ruff. “They have seen the need of the families and businesses in rural areas and worked to address that need, very much as the electric co-ops did in the early part of the last century.”
“Our rural communities deserve the same wired infrastructure as urban areas. The cooperatives and their principled business model will fill this need,” Malandro said. “Waiting 12 more years would leave an entire generation of rural students behind their peers in urban areas. We had to find a way.”