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Gloucester to use American Rescue Plan money to expand broadband

The Board of Supervisors set aside $2 million to work with Open Broadband, LLC to set up wireless connections in 2,500 underserved structures.

GLOUCESTER, Va. — Gloucester County is planning to use grant money from the American Rescue Plan Act to make sure everyone in its borders has access to broadband internet.

Quinton Sheppard, a spokesperson for the county, said the Board of Supervisors set aside $2 million to work with Open Broadband, LLC to set up wireless connections in underserved structures. That applies to businesses and homes.

Cox Communications reaches about 86% of the county, meaning 14% are without.

Acting county administrator Carol Steele said a lack of reliable Internet access for some residents is a long-standing problem that only became more apparent at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We have about 2,500 homes and businesses that do not have access," Steele said. “The pandemic highlighted that. People who thought they would never need the internet realized that they needed it.”

There are places in Gloucester that don't have access to a major broadband company's network, and those companies face high costs to expand to individual homes. Typically, if you move into a home that isn't reached by the network, they won't expand to include you.

Last year, Gloucester County Public Schools rolled out a WiFi on Wheels initiative: a school bus hooked up with WiFi traveled to different neighborhoods for students to connect to.

“Of course students, but we had a lot of people who wanted to or needed to work from home and they weren’t able to do that,” Steele said.

And that wasn’t the only issue.

“And then you throw in the telehealth,” Steele continued. 

The board of supervisors wants to set up a "fixed wireless" network fast enough to allow people in those remote areas to stream videos. It means putting up towers on county buildings that can communicate with smaller receivers in people's homes.

“Parents telling me they’re up at 2 o’clock in the morning because the only service they have is by satellite and that was the only time they could get enough service to help with their kids and their homework," Steele added.

She said the goal is to get internet accessibility for every person and business.

"This project will not only directly impact our residents in a material way but will also continue to show the region that Gloucester is an economically viable town to live and conduct business in," she said.

If you're interested in being included, visit the county's open broadband website to join the waitlist and sign up for monthly emails on the project's progress.

Steele said they’ve already started working to get people connected. To get all of Gloucester covered, it will take about two years.