County Board Approves Broadband Push

County supervisors are pushing to get broadband into underserved areas of Loudoun County more quickly.

They have backed a multi-pronged approach developed by county staff members that includes streamlining government approvals for telecommunications projects. One change would eliminate the fees for Special Exceptions to zoning, currently necessary to build communications towers, in underserved areas of the county. They would be replaced with a single $6,990 fee. That would eliminate the possibility of higher fees to review projects on parcels that also include environmentally sensitive areas such as floodplains, wetlands, and steep slopes—fees that help cover the cost of more extensive review of those projects.

Other changes help applicants seeking to build telecommunications infrastructure navigate the process of winning government approval such as designating an ombudsman to serve as the single point of contact for those applicants, and meeting with each of those applicants to help them through the process.

And a budget adjustment will send $191,000 to fund the Remote Site Connectivity Project, which begins with launching a Request for Proposals to find a vendor to connect five far-flung county facilities with fiber optic cable, possibly making it subsequently easier to connect other areas to that network.

Supervisors will also get quarterly updates on a number of other ongoing efforts to expand broadband in Loudoun, including efforts to contract with last-mile broadband providers, the search for grant opportunities and funding, and opportunities to partner with power utilities to expand broadband.

“I do believe that COVID, and many of our young students who are doing distance learning, have brought this to the forefront,” said Supervisor Caleb A. Kershner (R-Catoctin), who pushed to further accelerate broadband efforts.

“Every time we talked about broadband we get a lot of email saying ‘Thank gosh we’re finally got broadband coming,’ and then we get another significant number of emails, ‘Don’t ruin the viewscape and the view shed of Western Loudoun County.’ And so I’m an eastern Loudoun County Supervisor, I’m here to tell you, you can’t have it both ways,” said Supervisor Michael R. Turner (D-Ashburn). “If you actually want to connect to the 21st century, you’ve got to get over this aversion to monopoles, as effectively as we can screen them now. So those are coming. Just get over it. COVID has illustrated how important it is to be connected on the internet and those are coming.”

“As my colleagues know, clearly, broadband is no longer a nice convenience, it’s a necessary necessity, and we shouldn’t have folks in one part of our county that don’t have it, especially at the times that we’re in today,” said Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge). “And so we can no longer wait for the private market to fix the problem for us, because they’re never going to get to a position where it looks lucrative for them to do so. Without our help, it’s not going to happen.”

Supervisors voted 8-0-1 on Nov. 17 to support the package of measures, with Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) absent.

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