Click Here to Play Audio

Debbie Conboy's Chesapeake business, Green Ridge Farms, is trapped in the mid-1980s.

“People just don't believe us when they say… we don't get e-mail,” she said. “They're just dumbfounded. They just kind of sit at the other end of the telephone going, ‘What do you mean?’”

Some days even her cell service is spotty.

“If I'm standing on one leg with one arm in the air and licking my lips, I might get a signal,” she said.

New funding could help her.

Virginia earmarked more than $722 million to build infrastructure for broadband in 70 localities across the state. The funding aims to bring Virginia 90% of the way to Gov. Ralph Northam's goal of universal access to broadband and high-speed internet.

The Virginia Telecommunication Initiative and the federal American Rescue Plan Act provided the grant money for 35 projects, including a $21 million award to bring broadband to more than 12,000 locations in Suffolk, Isle of Wight and Southampton counties. Chesapeake also received an award for more than $500,000 to connect 279 locations.

“It's great news for the city,” Suffolk City Manager Albert Moor said. “It's something that we've been working for for a while. And if you'd asked me 24 months ago that universal coverage was going to be something we saw in the near future, I would have questioned that.”

Scott Fairholm, the Chief Information Officer for Chesapeake, said it’s been a long-term project in his city as well.

“I've been with the city for about four years,” he said. “One of the first issues that was given to me when I joined the city was council was concerned about broadband access across the city. There were a number of digital deserts and a number of areas that are underserved.”

Planning stages

Suffolk and Chesapeake officials have planned for years to make broadband universal. Moor said funding has held his city back.

“The cost associated with expanding – whether it's internet, utilities or whatever it may be… especially when the density's not there is really difficult for a locality,” he said. “Well, it's impossible, let's be honest, from a cost standpoint.”

Fairholm said the VATI funds are a small part of a larger plan for Chesapeake to build a better network.

“The city of Chesapeake is building a ring to meet our needs, our schools, libraries and city facilities,” he said. “We're building it in such a way that we think we're going to serve as an anchor tenant for economic development and growth.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic started, Chesapeake officials started to see how the lack of broadband could cause crises for its residents.

“As city employees moved and started working from home, as students started working from home, as businesses started putting their people at home,” Fairholm said. “Everybody needed access to broadband.” 

Students were hit hard, he added, with some unable to get their materials or find WiFi hotspots to get online for virtual instruction.

Localities used federal funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, and later money from the American Rescue Plan Act, to work on broadband projects. 

What happens next

State funds are not going to complete Chesapeake’s master plan – but will help the city target underserved areas. Chesapeake tried unsuccessfully in 2019 and 2020 to receive state grants. The city got a small grant in 2021, Fairholm said. The 2022 grant will help them continue connecting people who are off the grid.

Part of the work from the 2021 grant is taking place on Land of Promise Road, where Conboy’s farm sits. She remembers when the city discovered how bad it was a few years ago.

“They sent the troops out to investigate,” she said. “The tech guy for the city couldn't even make a phone call on his cell phone because it was a dead zone.”

Suffolk also previously applied for a state grant and didn't get it, Moor said. Eventually the city decided to team up with other localities to submit a joint proposal. 

“They wanted to see universal coverage in certain areas. And I think that's what we were missing in the past,” she said. “I think that's why we were successful this time around, because by joining forces with Isle of Wight and Southampton, we were able to show that universal coverage.”

Moor said increased connectivity will help people get remote health care, increase business opportunities and improve education in Suffolk. In Chesapeake, Fairholm said the expanded broadband will help more providers compete to drive prices down. 

But it won’t happen overnight, Moor cautioned.

“We're hoping in two to three years that we'll be well on the way and if not complete,” he said. “But remember, there's over 280 miles of cable that has to go in. So it does take some time. Some of this will be buried. With some of it's going to have to cross railroad crossings. So the key to it is a little patience with the construction. It's coming.”