County’s Broadband Partnership Derailed Due to Federal Lawsuit

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The Board of Supervisors (BOS) in Rappahannock (VA) recently faced a setback when the Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC) backed out of a retail broadband plan. The Rappahannock News reported that REC was forced to withdraw its interest in the project due to a federal lawsuit. 

According to Marc Seay, REC’s manager of information, technology, and security services, the legal action was brought by homeowners John and Cynthia Grano, who say that the installation of fiber lines across their land would violate their constitutional property rights. The plaintiff’s attorney, Joshua Baker, claims that while REC is entitled to maintain its power lines on private property, permission shouldn’t include “for-profit” fiber optic cable.

Baker argued that his clients would miss out on financial compensation under a law passed last summer to expedite broadband expansion in rural areas by allowing utilities to use existing easements. However, REC filed a motion to have the suit dismissed on the grounds that the Granos have not suffered any injury and have no standing since the cooperative switched to an alternative path for the fiber installation that doesn’t cross their property.

According to the News, if utilities are required to pay homeowners to install fiber, the cost of an already expensive project will only increase. The fiber expansion that REC proposed would have covered a 22-county service area with a $600 million price tag. REC had applied for grant money through the FCC new Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) but later withdrew its application due to the lawsuit. In addition, the BOS pledged $100,000 for the broadband expansion project, with the possibility of another $100,000 coming from other sources.

Seay said that REC will still build an 820-mile fiber backbone to improve its electric grid. However, the company will need to develop partnerships with other internet service providers (ISPs) to extend fiber to homes instead of building out the “last mile” itself. “Now that we know we’re not going to be in the retail broadband business, we’re back to looking at those partnerships aggressively,” he said.

Now, the Rappahannock County’s Broadband Authority, which will hold its inaugural meeting on February 15, will have to find new partners as well. REC withdrawing its application, was “definitely a blow” for the Authority, reported the News.

“I felt the wind go out of my sails, particularly since other rural counties have been working with electric cooperatives to bring reliable broadband service to their communities,” said BOS Chair Debbie Donehey, who also serves on the county’s advisory broadband committee. “Now we will turn our focus to other options, and with persistence, seek to identify other ways to provide for Rappahannock County citizens.”

Donehey noted that another partner(s) would need to be secured, understanding the county’s goals to bring high-speed broadband to residents. Working to obtain grant funding will also be a critical component of a partnership.

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