BERRYVILLE — Officials are exploring a second opportunity to expand high-speed internet, also known as broadband, to parts of Clarke County lacking it.

They’re more excited about the latest possibility, they admit, because they believe there’s a better chance of obtaining state funding to put toward a project.

Clarke is a mostly rural county. Outside its two towns, Berryville and Boyce, the county lacks broadband in many places. Some locations still have no internet service at all.

Officials say broadband providers are reluctant to extend the service to areas with lesser numbers of residents — and, therefore, fewer potential customers — because it’s hard for them to cover the installation costs. Yet they recognize that broadband has become a vital utility, much like water/sewer or electrical service, because many people now do business online and students often need the internet to study. The latter became apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic as students, while schools were closed, had to take part in online classes and lessons.

The latest opportunity would involve a regional project with All Points Broadband Partners LLC. The Clarke County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday adopted a resolution for the county to enter into a Phase 1 Memorandum of Understanding to participate. Similar agreements have been adopted by the Frederick and Warren county boards.

Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative and Dominion Energy Virginia are in the pact, and Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC) — Clarke County’s electricity provider — is anticipated to join, said County Administrator Chris Boies.

With help from power providers, All Points recently launched a project to extend broadband to portions of Virginia’s Northern Neck without it. The project involves a $10 million grant from the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI), plus federal and local dollars and private investments.

During the past two years, Clarke County used a $209,513 VATI grant to extend broadband to roughly 100 households in the White Post area in a joint project with Comcast. The company provided a $119,463 matching grant for a total project cost of $328,976.

The proposed project would provide broadband to Clarke homes through fiber-optic lines connected to utility poles owned by REC.

Boies said the supervisors’ resolution basically initiates a study process.

“All Points Broadband will determine the unserved areas of the county and ... high-level project designs and budgets to serve these areas,” he told The Winchester Star.

The region then could seek a VATI grant toward the project’s cost, which isn’t yet known. Boies said any funding match that Clarke would have to provide would be determined after the design and budget work is completed, probably around the end of August. At that time, he said, the supervisors would decide whether to participate in the grant application.

In December, the county should find out whether the grant will be received, Boies continued. Then a contract for the project could be executed, he said, adding it likely will take 2-3 years to complete.

“We’re not promising anything” right now, Boies told the Clarke County Industrial Development Authority on Thursday.

He said he’s “cautiously optimistic” that Clarke will be able to participate, yet “there’s still a lot of hurdles” to jump over, including cost factors.

If the supervisors decide that Clarke’s share of the cost is too expensive, the county can pull out of the project, said board Chairman David Weiss.

Economic stimulus funds that the county received through the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) can be put toward broadband extensions, officials have said.

In June, the county announced it’s been working with Shentel to develop “fixed wireless” proposals for delivering broadband via radio waves from antennas installed on high structures, including buildings, telecommunications masts and/or water towers.

That effort could proceed if the All Points project doesn’t, Boies said.

But “this is the Cadillac” of broadband projects, said Weiss, the Buckmarsh district supervisor. Fiber-optic internet service is more reliable than fixed wireless, the signals of which can weaken as they travel through the air, information online shows.

Working with All Points, “we think this is our best chance” to obtain VATI funds for another broadband project, Weiss said. “It seems to line up the dots” in terms of what the state prefers for projects to involve.

— Contact Mickey Powell at mpowell@winchesterstar.com

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