HUDDLESTON — A $60 million initiative to provide high-speed broadband to rural areas of Virginia will make internet services available to residents throughout eight counties, including parts of Bedford County.
On Thursday, officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it was awarding a $48 million loan to a North Carolina-based company to install more than 1,200 miles of fiber-optic cable to create an internet network that will cover more than 1,800 square miles in Halifax, Charlotte, Lunenberg, Mecklenburg, Brunswick, King and Queen, Pittsylvania and Bedford counties.
USDA’s Rural Business-Cooperative Service Administrator Bette Brand said the project would make broadband services available to approximately 22,600 homes in the network’s coverage area.
“When rural America thrives, all of America thrives,” Brand said Thursday morning during a news conference at Huddleston Elementary School. “That can’t happen without reliable broadband access.”
Brand — a native of Moneta — said internet access is “equally important as water and electric services.”
“This is not simply a luxury, it is a modern necessity,” Brand said. “I grew up about 15 miles from here so I know the communities that will be impacted.”
Wilkesboro, North Carolina-based Wilkes Communications is receiving the $48 million loan from the USDA’s ReConnect Program, which was initiated in 2018 to expand broadband and infrastructure services in rural areas throughout the United States. The company is investing an additional $12 million in the project to provide high-speed internet access to the 22,000 homes, 19 schools, eight community facilities and one hospital in the project area.
“That is our company’s mission,” CEO of Wilkes Communications Eric Cramer, who was in attendance during Thursday’s news conference, said. “We want to serve the underserved and that is what we will be out here doing.”
Cramer said after the company completes construction on the project — which has a six-year completion date under the terms of the USDA loan — residents in the project’s area will have access to high-speed broadband for an average of $75 a month.
“If you qualify for a federal discount you can get the service for $65 a month,” Cramer said. “We are trying to provide these services at an affordable rate because we are trying to reach people who often have to choose between buying groceries or paying their bills. These are the people we are trying to help.”
Bedford County Administrator Robert Hiss said the areas of Bedford County that are in the project’s 1,800-square-mile area are located in the southeastern part of the county, which includes the Huddleston and New London areas.
Hiss said the project will be “a welcome addition” to other broadband initiatives in Bedford County, including the county’s agreement with Roanoke-based Blue Ridge Towers to build an 11-tower broadband system to provide about 95% broadband coverage throughout Bedford County. Currently, more than half of Bedford County’s 764 square miles has little to no internet service.
“This really adds to what else is going on in Bedford County,” Hiss said. “Our broadband initiative is moving forward and Comcast’s project around the Smith Mountain Lake area stops just about where this new one picks up. I think all of these projects complement one another and will help connect our residents.”
Bedford County’s District 2 Supervisor Edgar Tuck, who represents the Huddleston area, said many of the residents in his district will benefit from the federal discount.
“About 55% of families here at Huddleston Elementary qualify for free or reduced lunch so they would qualify for the discount,” Tuck said. “This is great news for this area because we have been trying to get affordable and reliable service for a long time.”
District 1 Supervisor Mickey Johnson said some of the areas in Bedford County covered in the project are areas that may not receive reliable coverage through the county’s 11-tower network.
“I think this and the Comcast project are going to help us fill those gaps and get us closer to 100% coverage,” Johnson said. “Within a few years, we are going to go from being a communication desert to being a really well-connected area.”
Cramer said crews from Wilkes Communication will be working in Bedford County as early as March, conducting surveys and acquiring the easements and right-of-ways needed for the project.
“This is a long process and even if we started tomorrow it would be about two years before we would sign our first customer up for service,” Cramer said. “However, we are going to have boots on the ground out here soon to get things going.”