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Rural Virginia county plugs into Facebook’s long-haul fiber

Approximately 6,000 households in rural Grayson County, Va., will soon have access to broadband services thanks to a partnership between Facebook, Appalachian Power and Virginia-based internet service provider GigaBeam Networks. The mountain community currently is the least-connected county in the commonwealth, with 57% of residents having little or no access to online telehealth, education and business services, according to Grayson County Administrator Bill Shepley.

The backbone of the fiber-to-the-home and wireless internet service will be built on long-haul fiber routes Facebook is constructing to connect its Virginia, Ohio and North Carolina data centers. 

“We brought our own long-haul network, allowing vastly increased access to backhaul,” Facebook said in a Sept 23 blog post.  The company also provided engineering, construction and technical assistance for the project. “Our involvement in this project helped define standards between Appalachian Power and GigaBeam Networks, allowing for the faster finalization of network design and enabling everyone to start building sooner,” the company said.

Appalachian Power is building the middle-mile fiber network along its electric infrastructure grid. 

Starting in December 2020, the utility began installing fiber-optic cable on its power poles in Grayson County to support deployment of smart meters and technology to identify and correct faults on circuits. This allowed GigaBeam to splice Appalachian Power’s fiber and provide access points that will offer 238 miles of “last-mile” connectivity to county residents and businesses. 

In 2019, Virginia passed a law allowing electric utilities to build the middle-mile fiber to expand broadband access. A three-year pilot allowed Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power to lease excess fiber capacity to broadband providers targeting unserved communities. More than 13,000 unserved locations in Virginia will be connected from projects involved in the pilot, Ajit Pai, former chair of the Federal Communications Commission, wrote in a Sept. 22 Washington Post op-ed.

Rollout of the countywide hybrid fiber/fixed wireless network began in spring 2021.

“Over the next few months, we are going to transform from being the least connected county in the state to one of the most connected rural counties in the United States,” Shepley said in the blog’s video.

“This hasn’t been done anywhere else in the United States, and now many other organizations are working to duplicate this work,” said Brad Hall, Appalachian Power’s VP of external affairs. “I think the success here will create hope for a lot of rural Americans.”

“It boils down to an issue of equity. We want to make sure that everybody is treated equally, that everybody has access to broadband -- whether it be for telehealth, or virtual learning or whether it's for business opportunities,” said Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam. “It’s just a necessity now.”

About the Author

Susan Miller is executive editor at GCN.

Over a career spent in tech media, Miller has worked in editorial, print production and online, starting on the copy desk at IDG’s ComputerWorld, moving to print production for Federal Computer Week and later helping launch websites and email newsletter delivery for FCW. After a turn at Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology, where she worked to promote technology-based economic development, she rejoined what was to become 1105 Media in 2004, eventually managing content and production for all the company's government-focused websites. Miller shifted back to editorial in 2012, when she began working with GCN.

Miller has a BA and MA from West Chester University and did Ph.D. work in English at the University of Delaware.

Connect with Susan at [email protected] or @sjaymiller.

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