High-speed fiber-optic internet service still eludes about 50% of Virginians, but the state’s Southside region is making progress.
In the town of Lawrenceville, the former Bank of America branch on Main Street has sat empty for two years. However, in late September, Gov. Ralph Northam announced that Bedford County-based Echo World Communications LLC is set to locate a call center in the former bank building next year. It’s expected to create up to 152 new jobs.
It never would have happened if the building couldn’t have been equipped with high-speed, reliable internet, says Michael Dotti, business director of the Brunswick County Industrial Development Authority. “It’s a huge amount of technology. This was like small-town guys getting it done.”
Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative (MEC) is wiring the bank building this fall at no cost to Brunswick, with funding from Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corp., which started in 2004 as a cooperative to bring fiber-optic networks to rural Virginia. The broadband cooperative also has installed about 90 miles of fiber cables in six Southern Virginia counties, with 45 more miles planned by the end of 2020.
MEC also has proposed the purchase of Buggs Island Telephone Cooperative (BIT) by MEC affiliate Empower Broadband. The merger is contingent on BIT’s 4,500 customers, who have been asked to submit votes by Nov. 13.
“We expect it will speed up the process of putting fiber in this area,” says David Lipscomb, MEC’s vice president of member and energy services and vice president of Empower. MEC’s customer base averages only seven properties per mile, he says, so the greater population density around BIT’s service area in Lake Gaston will provide more revenue and help fund high-speed internet expansion in the region.
The Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, which has awarded MEC nearly $3 million in grants, also has been instrumental in building local network infrastructure.
MEC was in a position to help Lawrenceville install high-speed internet at the bank branch, even though it’s not in its service area, Lipscomb notes. As a result, the county was able to attract the call center.
Broadband is “the tool that you need in this world for businesses to want to be in a rural community,” says Carthan Currin III, former director of the tobacco commission and now Brunswick County’s director of economic development. “I think Mecklenburg is really at the forefront of the commonwealth, but we’re coming. We’re making every effort.”