The effort to expand broadband internet access in Cumberland County scored another victory last week when Ben Lomand Connect was awarded $1.9 million in federal grant funds to expand internet infrastructure in the southwest section of the county.

Lisa Cope, chief executive officer and general manager for the company, said the company has continued to expand high-speed broadband internet service in “areas where residents wouldn’t even dare to dream that it could reach them.” 

The project will include 25 square miles south of Pleasant Hill, with about 74 miles of fiber internet.

The project includes “about 150 new locations in one of the most rural areas of the county,” Cope said.

Ben Lomand will match the grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect program with $645,596. 

It marks the fourth grant awarded to telecommunications providers serving Cumberland County’s residents, with more than $11 million in grants awarded this year. 

Ben Lomand was awarded a $2.2 million Reconnect grant in February. That project will expand fiber internet infrastructure to about 100 square miles in rural Cumberland County in the area of Smith Mountain and Clear Creek, serving 222 homes.

Cumberland County Mayor Allen Foster said then the infrastructure will be passing other homes that can be served once the grant requirements are satisfied. 

The company also was awarded a $2 million state grant to expand service north of Interstate 40 to 1,500 homes and businesses. 

Volunteer Energy Cooperative and Twin Lakes Telephone Cooperative were awarded a $3.3 million grant for a project in Cumberland Cove.

“Broadband is the number one issue we talk about every day,” said Jim Tracy, state director for USDA Rural Development. 

The digital divide — the gulf between those with access to high-speed internet and those who do not — impacts more than 21 million Americans, many living in rural areas where providers find it difficult to expand costly infrastructure.

That lack of access to high-speed internet has made it difficult for employees asked to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic or students seeking to continue their education virtually. 

During the grant presentation Thursday, Bette Brand, deputy undersecretary of USDA Rural Development, said, “It really is not an amenity anymore.” 

More than $17 million in grants were presented to five providers last week, with projects that will provide high-speed internet connectivity to more than 4,100 rural households. 

“Each of these organizations is setting a great example,” Brand said. “They’re showing that no household, no business or person, should be left behind in this critical infrastructure deployment … We know that when rural America thrives, all America thrives.”

Access to high-speed internet service has been identified as a problem in all areas of the county. Foster used speed test data provided by residents across the county last fall to challenge coverage maps, which had showed Cumberland County had more access than residents experienced. 

Grant funding was crucial to expanding broadband service, particularly in sparsely populated areas, due to the cost to fiber optic cable. And changing the maps was the first step to making grant applications from Cumberland County providers competitive.

The USDA ReConnect program includes loans and grants to extend high-speed internet service to rural homes, businesses, schools, and healthcare facilities. The first round of funding included $689 million distributed to 33 states. The second round of applications closed in April, with 172 applications for $1.57 billion in funds sought. Congress allocated $550 million to the second round of funding.

Congressman John Rose said internet connectivity is an issue he hears about daily from across the 19-county 6th Congressional District. 

He thanked USDA and the telecommunications providers for seeking the grants. 

“They’re working hard. Programs like this leverage your federal tax dollars and the dollars from the members they serve are so important to bringing that connectivity,” Rose said.

Volunteer Energy Cooperative was awarded a $3.7 million grant to provide high-speed internet to 2,687 people, 79 farms and nine businesses in Meigs County. 

The cooperative entered the broadband business in 2018 with a pilot project in Bradley County, following a change in state law in 2017 that allowed them to provide internet service. Today, the cooperative has broadband service available in five counties.

“We’re moving ahead as fast as we can,” said Rody Blevins, president of VEC. “We see providing broadband to our members in rural areas much like our original mission of providing electricity to rural areas.”

Cope said, “We all share a common mission. Not only do we want rural America to survive, we want it to thrive. That’s why we do what we do — one household, one business, one educational and healthcare facility at a time.”