In the near future, and with the presumption that the country's largest investment ever in broadband deployment ($42.5 billion) will be targeted to those areas most in need of internet service, cable internet service providers (ISPs) will get the chance to finish the job that they started—which is to give every American access to a high-speed broadband connection. But even while disbursement is still underway, ISPs continue to pursue various avenues in order to make buildouts possible in hard-to-reach areas where communities remain unserved and broadband deployment proves costly. Through investing billions of their own dollars to fund broadband buildouts in rural areas, forging new public-private partnerships, and helping communities utilize federal programs and state grants dedicated to funding broadband deployment, cable ISPs have already connected millions of households that previously lacked broadband.
As one example, a combination of these efforts are at play in the state of Virginia, where three cable ISPs—Charter, Comcast, and Cox—have expanded broadband access throughout their footprints and through different approaches. To focus on Charter, the ISP's efforts to close the digital divide—even in just the last couple of years—are seen through its significant investments in the state and in its commitments to the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI) grants and the FCC's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) awards.
At the start of last year, the rural counties of Accomack and Northampton on Virginia's Eastern Shore saw a transformation when Charter brought high-speed internet service to nearly 18,000 homes and businesses. The company invested $20 million to connect the counties, where 35% of the population previously had no access to high-speed broadband. Small business operators like Timothy Smith, who owns an antique appraisal, restoration, and woodworking shop in Onancock, no longer had to wait for internet images to load or fear that a bad internet connection was driving away customers. Smith now enjoys download speeds of over 200 Mbps.
"We're now offering our custom woodworking products online. This relies on sending, receiving, and uploading high-resolution images and videos to the internet onto multiple online platforms. Folks are now purchasing our products and engaging our services from all over the country," said Smith.
Since this project's completion, Charter has also partnered with the City of Suffolk and Isle of Wight and Southampton counties through the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission to bring universal broadband coverage to these areas. The Commission was awarded a $21 million VATI grant, which will help fund the deployment of high-speed broadband to more than 12,000 homes along with 170 businesses and community anchors that previously lacked coverage. Charter worked together with the Commission to develop a strategy and winning grant proposal, and with the localities, provided a combined $13.8 million in additional funds towards the project. And through state and local partnerships, Charter worked with the City of Suffolk to utilize local funds distributed through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) to provide connectivity to over 300 local residents.
"Each day without connectivity increases the gap between those who have broadband and those who do not. Charter Communications is committed to being part of the comprehensive solution needed to expand access to unserved communities. Our investments in Isle of Wight and Southampton Counties, and the City of Suffolk, and our demonstrated track record of delivering on complex rural broadband deployment projects, evidence our ongoing commitment to the Commonwealth and these communities," said Marva Johnson, Charter Group Vice President, State Government Affairs.
The growth and economic opportunities that Charter's high-speed networks will harness are undeniable. The communities that will benefit, which had to be unserved to qualify, include very rural, low density areas, many of which are home to poultry farms and the peanut industry, and notably, Planters' Peanuts in Suffolk.
"As one of the country's top rated rural internet service providers, Charter Communications understands the importance of reliable, high-speed connectivity to unserved communities in the Commonwealth. We are proud to invest and engage in bold broadband projects like this to reach more Virginians," said Shannon Atkinson, Charter Regional Vice President, Field Operations.
Charter continues to seek out opportunities to connect more Virginians to high-speed broadband. Currently, as just one example, Charter is also partnering with Patrick County through the West Piedmont Planning District Commission to build fiber broadband to approximately 680 unserved locations in the county after being awarded a $1.4 million VATI grant.
In addition to VATI, Charter pursued and was approved earlier this year to build to an FCC-estimated more than 10,500 residents throughout six Virginia counties via the FCC's RDOF auction. The award is already playing a significant role in the buildouts for the City of Suffolk and Isle of Wight and South Hampton counties. In total, earlier this year, Charter was authorized for approximately $1 billion in RDOF bids covering 24 states. The award is part of Charter's multi-year, multi-billion dollar investment to connect an FCC-estimated 1 million unserved customers in rural areas in states across the country.
Moving forward, Charter will continue to support the VATI and RDOF rural buildouts through the hiring of local crews and contractors to deploy the networks, and in helping localities to leverage all the funding sources available to them. Thanks to these efforts, as well as those from Comcast, Cox, federal, state, and local funding sources, more Virginians are gaining access to broadband for the first time than ever before, opening up future growth and opportunity in unserved parts of the state.
To read more about the cable industry's efforts to bring high-speed broadband to rural America, please visit NCTA’s rural broadband page.