Thursday, April 14, 2005
Broadband deal gets green light
Under the agreement, fiber-optic lines will be installed within highway rights-of-way.
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The agreement between VDOT and the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Cooperative paves the way for completion of the Regional Backbone Initiative, an extensive fiber-optic network connecting five cities, 20 counties and 56 industrial parks between Franklin County and Sussex County. The roughly 700-mile network will extend broadband access to an estimated 700,000 residents and 19,000 businesses in the service area. The project is scheduled for completion in March 2006. "We've now leveled the playing field and that's terribly important for our efforts to improve the quality of job offerings in Southside Virginia and work with our local partners for the kind of economic resurgence we want to see," said Gov. Mark Warner, who announced the agreement Wednesday at Richmond's VDOT headquarters.
Warner hailed the agreement as the fulfillment of a campaign pledge to "help try to get the information-age economy right in every region of Virginia."
"By doing this we're going to save taxpayers literally millions of dollars in terms of making this next-generation connectivity available," the governor said.
The $27 million infrastructure project is funded through grants from the U.S. Department of Commerce and funds Virginia receives under a 1998 multistate settlement with major tobacco manufacturers. The Mid-Atlantic Broadband Cooperative (MBC) is a Richmond-based nonprofit entity formed to manage the project.
The cooperative has contracts with two firms to install the fiber-optic cable. The infrastructure will be made available to providers on a competitively neutral wholesale basis.
The agreement between the state and MBC applies to limited-access highway segments in 11 areas, including portions of U.S. 220 and U.S. 58 in Martinsville. Fiber-optic lines already have been installed along roadways in two other segments of the network, Warner said.
Under the agreement, VDOT will gain free access to network fiber strands for "smart traffic" technologies such as roadway cameras, traffic sensors and traffic signal synchronization.
"This is the last hurdle that had to be cleared to make sure this 700-mile network becomes a reality, and it's a win for the state in the fact that VDOT is going to gain some access to broadband connectivity without having to lay down its own telecommunications network," Warner said.
The network's completion could mark a turning point for cities and counties that have struggled to recover from the erosion of manufacturing jobs and the decline of tobacco farming. Broadband capacity is essential to recruiting high-wage jobs and protecting existing businesses, said Scott Martin, Franklin County's director of commerce and leisure services.
"With the market being what it is, people look at broadband like they look at water, sewer and power," Martin said.
Martin said the promise of broadband connectivity helped close a deal last year for Jammin Apparel to move its customized sportswear business - and 60 jobs - from California to Rocky Mount's technology park.
"The first question they asked was, 'What's the price of your high-speed Internet?'" Martin said.
The Regional Backbone Initiative has become a signature project for the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, which controls half of the annual payments Virginia receives under the settlement agreement with tobacco makers. The panel has made technology a major focus of its efforts to boost economic development efforts in tobacco-dependent communities.
The panel has awarded $15 million in grants for the Regional Backbone Initiative, the largest of four rural broadband networks that have been financed at least partly by tobacco settlement proceeds. Other projects include a 93-mile network across Lee, Scott and Wise counties; a 51-mile fiber-optic backbone linking the towns of Abingdon, Lebanon and Richlands; and a 16-mile extension of a network from Bristol to Abingdon.
Warner said such investments underscore the state's prudent use of tobacco settlement proceeds. Many of the 46 states that joined in the 1998 settlement have used the payments to cover budget shortfalls.
"Our decision with the legislature to not use our tobacco funds to fill a budget hole was so important," Warner said. "This allows us to make the kind of long-term infrastructure investment that's critical to the region's future."