A project aimed at bringing high-speed internet service to Grayson County got a significant boost from one of the world’s tech titans Thursday.
Facebook announced it would partner with Appalachian Power and West Virginia-based Gigabeam to expand access in the rural county of about 6,500 households.
Officials with the companies involved said the partnership will bring fiber and wireless service to around 6,000 unconnected or underserved homes in the county.
Gigabeam and Appalachian Power initially joined forces to bring access to Grayson three years ago as part of a pilot project with a goal of getting broadband into hard-to-reach places.
The sparsely populated and mountainous county includes some of the hardest to reach spots in the country, including Whitetop on the border of Washington County, Troutdale adjoining Smyth County and Elk Creek abutting Wythe County.
Supervisor John Fant said that 57% of the residents in the county don’t have broadband connections, a fact that County Administrator Bill Shepley said prevents Grayson “from participating in the modern economy.”
The original plan called for Appalachian Power to string 238 miles of fiber-optic cable on its utility poles in the county and then lease the extra broadband capacity to Gigabeam, which would connect individual homes and businesses to the network.
Grayson County received $1.8 million in state grants for the project.
Facebook joining the project will speed things up dramatically. Gigabeam plans to roll out offerings this fall, meaning thousands of homes will be able to access broadband internet.
Shepley said that over the next few months one of the least connected areas in the state will become one of “the most connected rural counties in the U.S.”
For several years, Facebook has been looking at ways to connect its data centers with high-capacity fiber optics, particularly through rural areas. This project, the company says, will link data centers in Sandston, Virginia; Forest City, North Carolina; and New Albany, Ohio. The fiber infrastructure can then be used by small internet providers to serve customer bases.
Del. Israel O'Quinn predicted the partnership would change Grayson County forever.
“You will have the ability to stay where you want to stay and do the job that you want to do because you have the connectivity to pull it all together,” he said.
Gov. Ralph Northam also applauded the project, saying, “Broadband is like electricity 100 years ago — every community needs it.”
Gigabeam opened in 1997 as C&H Computers, expanding to offer dial-up internet service in 2001. In 2004, C&H Computers became WVVA.net Inc. and began to offer high-speed internet service. The company expanded to five counties in the region in 2009, and now serves eight counties in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky.