Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative is intent on addressing the digital divide in Southside Virginia, and its effort to do so received a boost from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently.
The cooperative is the recipient of a nearly $3.8 million investment from the USDA for its fiber-to-the-home project. This funding will help to bring high-speed internet access to more than 1,250 households in Brunswick County through MEC’s wholly owned subsidiary, EMPOWER Broadband. The loan comes from the USDA ReConnect program, which provides support to expand access to broadband in partnership with co-ops, the private sector and rural communities.
Donald “DJ” LaVoy, deputy under secretary of rural development, made the award announcement at a Nov. 4 ceremony at the Triplet Volunteer Fire Department (VFD) near Lawrenceville, part of Mecklenburg Electric’s service territory. “Our core mission at USDA is to increase rural prosperity, and this mission cannot be achieved without addressing the digital divide our rural communities face due to a lack of high-speed broadband internet connection,” LaVoy told a group of federal, state and local dignitaries and community leaders.
“Our cooperative is very proud of the significant role we have played in improving the quality of life for those living here by providing the valuable service of electricity; and in 2019, we continue to build upon that legacy by forming EMPOWER Broadband to bring resilient, best-in-technology internet service to the citizens of Southside Virginia,” says John C. Lee, Jr., president and CEO of Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative and EMPOWER Broadband. “This funding is a substantial breakthrough for our efforts in deploying fiber to Brunswick County residents, and I want to say how grateful we are for USDA’s assistance. Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative will use this ReConnect program funding to deploy a fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) broadband network capable of simultaneous transmission rates of one Gigabit per second and greater.”
Lee continues, “I additionally want to thank my dedicated colleagues who have worked diligently to meet all application requirements for this ReConnect funding.”
U.S. Rep. Denver Riggleman of the 5th District, a member of the Congressional Rural Broadband Caucus, says the award is an example of ways in which the public and private sector can work together to fill unmet needs. He says he regularly hears stories about students who trek to a library or other hot spot to do research because they don’t have internet service at home.
“Our rural communities need access to broadband to keep up with the demands of the modern economy,” says Riggleman. “Broadband will help communities close the digital divide, which is critical to creating economic opportunity, job creation, access to health care and education in rural America.”
In addition to serving 1,254 households, the initiative will hook up four educational facilities and two volunteer fire departments. It will serve as a hub as EMPOWER Broadband reaches out across Brunswick County. “We are truly excited about what has taken place. It falls right in line with our vision,” adds Barbara Jarrett-Harris, chairwoman of the Brunswick County Board of Supervisors.
This new high-speed broadband will have an immediate impact. Dave High of the Triplet VFD said spotty internet coverage has hobbled the department when it attempts to file required incident reports with state agencies. “This will be a big improvement,” he says.
Lee notes that Mecklenburg Electric has recently contracted to provide high-speed internet to a new call center that will bring 153 jobs to Brunswick County. “Without access to fiber, that call center would likely have landed elsewhere,” he says. “When no one else would bring dependable high-speed internet service to our region, despite the rapidly rising importance of access, we have answered our membership’s call.”