EMPOWER Issues $154 Million RFP for Broadband to Thousands – The Southside Messenger

CHASE CITY –  In late 2021, state officials announced the award of a $69 million Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI) grant to the Southside Planning District Commission and EMPOWER Broadband for a combined grant and match total of $154 million. The project will provide world class broadband to thousands in Brunswick, Charlotte, Halifax, and Mecklenburg Counties. And on Monday, May 16, EMPOWER Broadband’s Request for Proposals (RFP) for the substantial fiber construction project “hit the streets” to secure contractors to assist with the significant undertaking that will result in world class broadband access to thousands and thousands of Virginians in rural Southside communities. 
EMPOWER CEO, John C. Lee, Jr. recently discussed the project and the company’s goals, stating “Over the next three years, EMPOWER will operate 3,000 miles of high-speed fiber network  passing 30,000 eligible homes and businesses, all of which we hope will take advantage of the best broadband technology available anywhere and become customers of EMPOWER Broadband. To ensure EMPOWER has hard hats in the field promptly, and we’re deploying fiber as efficiently as absolutely possible, we have sent notice to contractors across the country for bids on our most recent and massive fiber expansion project yet.”
He added, “In just a few short months since the announcement of the VATI award, EMPOWER has hired a highly competent Owner Engineer, Magellan Advisors, and with their assistance authored a request for proposals that has been distributed, and which has already prompted a number of notices of intent to bid from major reputable fiber construction entities.
“We recognize that Southside Virginians want high-quality broadband access as soon as humanly possible and especially given the magnitude of this project, we are very aggressively moving ahead with a goal of commencing construction in early August,” said Lee. “Our team has done an extraordinary job of moving this project successfully forward with an urgency that matches the need and fiber contractors have been given a construction start date of August 1, 2022, and an overall completion date of July 31, 2025.
“EMPOWER staff and our Owner’s Engineer firm have worked conscientiously over the past few months defining the construction contract terms,” said Lee. “It is astounding that in such a short time we are able to seek the most cost-effective and qualified construction companies to submit proposals to build this expansive fiber network. It is very gratifying to be a part of this strong initiative and provide coverage to those across the region with little or no options for robust broadband service. We are more than eager to bring this critically important service to our communities.” 
Lee added that additional information will be forthcoming once the successful bidder is selected and work begins on scheduling. EMPOWER Broadband will be sharing a dashboard of information on the progress of the buildout that will be available to the public and updated on a weekly basis. Lee attributes EMPOWER’s early success to a combination of factors, including the company’s deliberate creation of a customer base to support and fund growth in the earliest days of EMPOWER; aggressively seeking out and securing  local, state, and federal funding to build in areas of low density population; the intentional effort to build efficiently by adding fiber during electric line upgrades and while deploying fiber to MEC’s substations; and additionally, EMPOWER has maximized a fiber trading agreement with Mid-Atlantic Broadband to minimize duplication of construction,  resulting in significant construction savings. 
“EMPOWER is making tremendous progress and is also ahead of the curve on multiple fronts. This is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that we are already serving customers in federally funded Connect America Fund areas, a full two years in advance of FCC requirements. But it does not stop there,” Lee said. “We recognize the genuine need for broadband by our residents, and accordingly, we continue to work diligently with our counties, the SPDC, and the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development on any opportunities that will assist EMPOWER in making certain Southside Virginia doesn’t have to settle for less when it comes to broadband access.”  
EMPOWER Broadband, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative and its Member-Owners, began its fiber broadband program as a pilot in March of 2018. In April of 2021, EMPOWER officials announced the activation of its 1000th customer connected to the firm’s expanding fiber network. At present, EMPOWER’s Board and staff are proud to announce, just 12 months later, that the growing internet service provider closed its April 2022 books with a total of 2,034 ultra-high-speed accounts.   
To date, EMPOWER has built and operates a 570-mile high-speed fiber network crossing portions of eight localities including Brunswick, Charlotte, Greensville, Halifax, Mecklenburg, Pittsylvania, Warren, N.C. and the city of Emporia. This existing network passes within 500 feet of over 8,000 premises. 
Other areas of significant progress
EMPOWER has additional projects entering the final phase of construction, culminating in service activation in three communities. EMPOWER will pass hundreds of homes in its fiber-to-the-neighborhood project taking advantage of a coax cable system acquired to complete the final connection from the mainline to the home. This will impact Americamps, River Ridge, and Tanglewood communities in Mecklenburg County’s Bracey area. Utilizing existing coax facilities has expedited service delivery but also reduces encounters with numerous existing underground facilities. Currently, just under 600 applicants have signed up for these services with an anticipated completion by the end of summer. 
Crews also are aggressively working in areas along Lake Gaston Drive near Gasburg in Brunswick County passing some 130 addresses and is scheduled for completion by fall. Additionally, EMPOWER is constructing nearly 20 miles of main line fiber from Crystal Hill toward Clarkton and Mount Laurel in Halifax County. This project passes an additional 260 homes and is expected to be complete by year-end.
About EMPOWER Broadband
EMPOWER Broadband, Inc., a subsidiary of Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative, provides middle-mile capacity, retail high-speed internet service, as well as voice over IP telephony, and high-speed data services to over 4,000 accounts in the cooperative’s service territory in Southside Virginia and northern North Carolina. For more information, please visit www.empowermec.net.
About Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative
Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative (MEC) proudly powers over 31,000 homes, farms and businesses in the counties of Brunswick, Charlotte, Greensville, Halifax, Lunenburg, Mecklenburg, Pittsylvania, Southampton, and Sussex in Virginia and portions of Granville, Northampton, Person, Vance, and Warren counties in North Carolina.  It is headquartered in Chase City and has district offices in Chase City, Va.; Emporia, Va.; Gretna, Va. For more information, please visit www.meckelec.org.
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