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How Virginia electric cooperatives are bringing broadband to rural communities

Three electric crew members working in a field.
Crews from BARC Electric co-op laying in fiber. Still image from Life in the Heart Land.

In rural parts of Virginia, many residents lack access to high-speed internet. The business models of major carriers don’t prioritize low-density areas, and government funding for broadband infrastructure has been minimal.

“People who usually make decisions tend to think, ‘Well, this is all farmland. They don't need access to broadband internet,’ and things of that nature,” said Crystal Johnson-Smith, the vice president of human resources for Prince George Electric Cooperative. “And I think that's far from the truth. I don’t think you should have to choose rural community or internet. I think you should have both.”
 

Without high-speed internet, individuals are excluded from opportunities in business, education, health care and more. In a meeting with Virginia co-op leaders, Senator Mark Warner says "access alone is not going to guarantee economic success, but the absence of broadband in a community is going to mean they will get the short end of the stick.”

Electric co-ops, like Prince George Electric Cooperative and BARC Electric Cooperative, are finding innovative ways to provide broadband to their communities.

Trailer for "Life in the Heart Land"

“Previous to our broadband project, no one in this community had access to high-speed internet. Today, everybody in this little town [Millboro] has the same speeds you can get in downtown New York City,” said Mike Keyser, CEO of BARC.

John and Karen Siegfried own Wade’s Mill, Virginia’s oldest milling company, located in Raphine, Virginia. They need access to high-speed internet to compete in today’s digital world.

“A lot of the milling business very quickly becomes the food business. And when you communicate with chefs now, it's really Instagram. It's social media,” John said.

Having the internet provided by BARC has been a game-changer for them and their business. "I no longer had to start to upload a photo, walk away and come back two hours later. I could make multiple posts and update the website, which enabled us to do more promotion so we could grow the business,” Karen said.

While BARC was able to provide internet access to the Siegfrieds, Keyser says co-ops face physical, geographical and governmental challenges with getting broadband to communities. “Nowhere is it harder than it is right here to do this project. We started broadband in the Rockbridge area, and we're slowly branching our way west.”

BARC’s Virginia map illustrates the vast number of populated areas still in need of broadband. One challenge the company faces is getting broadband to the areas west of the mountain range.

“We are deep in a valley and surrounded by a lot of mountainous terrain. We even have to cross through mountains just to get to consumers' homes. BARC is a last-mile fiber company. So, we're building out our whole system,” said Tish Blackwell, director of communications and public relations for BARC.

“It's really bizarre to have so much focus on broadband with politicians and government talking about how important it is, and it's not even getting done,” Keyser said. “If a community is not on the internet railroad, they’re not going to have commerce and growth. They’re not going to have people. They’re going to get left behind.”

The new VPM documentary series “Life in the Heart Land” gets into the heart of those creating unique solutions to rural America’s toughest challenges. The series premiere highlights how Virginia electric co-ops are finding innovative ways to bring broadband to Virginia’s rural communities.

Visit vpm.org/heartland to learn more and catch a preview of the episode.

Watch “Life in the Heart Land” on November 11 at 8:00 p.m. on VPM PBS. Stream anytime starting November 11 @myVPM on Facebook or YouTube, or on your PBS Passport App.