BOTETOURT COUNTY, VA. – On Tuesday night, Botetourt County celebrated a major accomplishment, one they said is actually a positive from the Coronavirus pandemic.
They’re spending nearly $3 million on residential broadband expansion and they’re using CARES Act funding to do it. And not only is it free money, but it’s also fast-tracking the project to completion by the end of this year as required by Congress.
Botetourt County is a historically rural county, but it thinks big about its future. Board of Supervisors Vice-Chair Mac Scothorn said they need broadband in all parts of the county, and that’s never been more obvious than now.
“We’re trying to supply our private areas and this is a rural area, so having these companies come to here is very difficult," Scothorn said.
He’s talking about internet service providers. Running fiber to sparsely populated areas isn’t profitable, so they generally don’t do it. County administrator Garry Larrowe said that’s why they’re using $2.9 million in CARES Act funding as a subsidy to get more broadband access.
“If there was anything positive that can come out of COVID-19 that would be the deployment of broadband, and so that could end up being a long term solution to a problem that we’ve had in the community," Larrowe said.
It’s a tactic that localities across the country are using, like in neighboring Roanoke County who announced their plan to use CARES Act funding a few weeks ago.
In Botetourt, about 500 homes will be brought online by the end of the year as a direct result of that funding — but more important is the future access. The funding is being used to expand the fiber backbone running through the county, and while this time around they’re only getting to 500 homes, the fiber backbone makes it much easier to reach the remaining homes in the area.
The county has been growing its broadband access for the last few years and this project is expected to have a snowball effect.
“It would have taken years and years and years of work if this money was not available to be able to buy down some of the cost that was associated in the community," Larrowe said.
The pandemic only magnified the need for reliable internet access and county leaders said this was the perfect opportunity. By the end of this project only 20% of the county will remain unserved or underserved, and they’ve got those remaining folks on the shortlist for access.
“We don’t have a backhoe, we don’t have fiber, but what we have is trying to put that public, private to use to try to bring it to our citizens," Scothorn said.