Facebook lends its long-haul fiber to boost rural broadband in Virginia

Facebook is working with service provider GigaBeam Networks and utility company Appalachian Power to bring broadband to thousands of people in an area of Virginia where nearly 60% of residents lack access.

The tech giant said in a blog the project in Grayson County is utilizing a combination of assets from all three companies, with Facebook contributing access to its aforementioned long-haul fiber network for backhaul, Appalachian Power building middle-mile fiber along its electrical grid and GigaBeam covering drops to the home with either fiber or fixed wireless access (FWA). Once complete, it will deliver service to some 6,000 residents there.

Boh DuPree, director of network investments at Facebook, told Fierce the partnership is just one of several it is hoping to form as it continues construction of a long-haul fiber network designed to connect its data centers in Ohio, North Carolina and Virginia. That project, run through Facebook subsidiary Middle Mile Infrastructure, began in 2019. DuPree said its fiber line to North Carolina is set to be complete by the end of 2021, with construction on the remaining routes wrapping up by Q2 2022.

“Obviously connecting our data centers is important, but we also have a passion for connectivity,” he said. “As we build these out, a benefit of building our fiber connecting our data centers is there’s an opportunity to impact rural connectivity."

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Work on the project in Grayson dates back to 2019, when GigaBeam began collaborating with Appalachian Power and county officials on a plan to build 238 miles of fiber through the area.

Michael Clemons, CEO of GigaBeam, told Fierce the new fiber network will reach 70% of unserved locations, with the remaining 30% to be covered by FWA. GigaBeam’s fiber will initially offer speeds up to 1 Gbps while its FWA option will provide speeds up to 100 Mbps. Clemons noted its network is being built using XGS-PON technology, giving it the ability to offer faster speeds in future.

The project is being funded through a combination of grants, including $1.8 million from the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI) as well as two grants from the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission totaling $475,000, Clemons said.

The CEO explained Facebook’s involvement solves a key problem for rural broadband builds: securing access to backhaul. “That’s one of the big problems in this area. We don’t have a lot of fiber coming out to connect to the internet,” he said, adding it was “wonderful to have” the ability to tap into Facebook’s network.

Clemons concluded partnerships like the one GigaBeam has with Facebook and Appalachian Power are “one of the best options for solving rural broadband. Cost and time of deployment and everything is a big plus to it.”