Four Virginia Electric Co-ops Win $162M for Universal Broadband Efforts

Mecklenburg EC’s broadband arm, Empower, won a $69 million grant from Virginia to help deliver near-universal broadband to the state by 2024. Three other electric co-ops also won grants. (Photo Courtesy: Mecklenburg EC)

Four electric cooperatives in Virginia will provide high-speed internet access across 20 counties and connect more than 50,000 residents and businesses after winning $162 million in recently announced state and federal grants.

The funds, part of $722 million in universal broadband service awards, are expected to be made available beginning this year. They will reimburse providers as they build networks in areas identified by the state as unserved.

“No longer will we just be the electric provider to certain homes, but we will be the universal broadband provider” to areas covered by the awards, said Casey Logan, president and CEO of Prince George Electric Cooperative and its broadband subsidiary, RURALBAND.

“We were going into those counties to serve our electric co-op members. These grants allow us to serve an entire county, no matter who the electric provider is.”

RURALBAND, based in Waverly, will receive two grants totaling about $12.5 million to build fiber to nearly 4,000 unserved locations in two counties. They will partner with Windsor-based Community Electric Cooperative and Crewe-based Southside Electric Cooperative in unserved areas covered by the grants and use their poles to hang fiber.

“It’s definitely an example of co-ops helping other co-ops,” said Logan, who is also chairman of the Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Broadband Cooperatives. The group served as liaison between state officials and co-op applicants during the competitive grant process.

Chase City-based Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative’s fiber broadband arm, Empower, won more than $69 million to serve about 11,500 locations in parts of four counties.

“We already have a pretty strong fiber presence in these counties,” said John Lee, president and CEO of Mecklenburg EC and Empower. “This grant gives us the ability to really close the deal.”

Empower partnered with Dominion Power in 2021 when the investor-owned utility offered middle-mile fiber in exchange for the co-op delivering retail broadband to its customers.

“It’s been an excellent partnership that will the benefit rural areas,” said Lee. “Broadband is just going to get more and more important. People who’ve said we don’t need it today are calling tomorrow.”

Central Virginia Electric Cooperative’s fiber broadband subsidiary, Firefly, headquartered in Arrington, will receive $79 million—the largest of these awards for a co-op—to connect more than 36,000 unserved locations across 13 counties.

And with about 7,000 meters, Craig-Botetourt Electric Cooperative, headquartered in New Castle, was the smallest co-op to earn a grant. It will use the nearly $1.6 million to deliver broadband to 495 unserved locations outside the city of Roanoke.

Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, who announced the awards Dec. 13, said the pandemic underscored the need for “swift and bold action to extend high-speed internet across Virginia.”

Derived from the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative and the federal American Rescue Plan Act, the grants will add to the more than $1 billion in investments statewide in 35 broadband projects to serve 278,000 households, businesses and community anchor institutions, according to the governor’s office.

To learn more about growing opportunities for co-op broadband, check out LiveWire, NRECA’s new video series.

Cathy Cash is a staff writer for NRECA.