It’s no coincidence that the Central Virginia Electric Cooperative (CVEC) named their internet subsidiary after a small, luminescent insect. The parallels between the push to power rural homes in the 1930’s and the challenge of bringing broadband to remote areas of the state were undeniable as the company expanded its reach into telecommunications.
“It’s just as critical today for everyone to have internet access as it was for our parents and grandparents to get electricity,” says Gary Wood, Chief Executive Officer for Firefly Fiber Broadband. “Broadband is really transformational in its ability to help people function in today’s society because so many services are delivered online.”
Like its namesake, Firefly is brightening the lives of a growing list of customers in nine Virginia counties with help from USDA Rural Development. Funding provided through the ReConnect Program enabled the company to build out its fiber network overhead and underground with 850 miles of cable and communications huts to transmit the signal that connects communities.
The impacts of this service are far-reaching, touching every facet of daily life.
Schools. Home use of school-issued laptops had proven problematic before COVID but rose to prominence afterwards when students couldn’t complete work in the classroom, library or other locations with reliable wi-fi. Today, students can finish assignments and their teachers can grade them in the comfort of their own homes.
Businesses. The beautiful rolling hills of Central Virginia are home to numerous businesses, including breweries and vineyards that need connectivity to grow and thrive in these remote locations. The ability to take orders online and process credit card payments on site can be a game changer for these enterprises. Farms, orchards, produce wholesalers and small stores are all expanding their operations through e-commerce.
Telework options are also helping companies attract and retain quality employees. Wood says his team regularly received comments from people who wanted to live in a rural area and weren’t able to do that until they found a place with reliable, affordable broadband.
First Responders/Health Care Organizations. Every minute is critical in life-or-death situations. Several volunteer fire departments in the area did not have good connectivity prior to the launch of this project and residents often had to drive great distances to access medical treatment.
Broadband helps crews find houses more quickly to provide emergency care or bring blazes under control. Telemedicine is also proving to be a vital lifeline for diagnosis and treatment of chronic conditions. Devices like pacemakers must have connectivity to enable physicians to properly monitor a patient’s vital functions.
“We’ve had nurses tell us they have been able to do a lot of their jobs remotely and, in some cases, are caretakers for elderly individuals,” said Wood. “In one particular case, a lady wrote a touching story about being able to keep her father at home instead of moving him to an assisted living facility.”
Houses of Worship. Churches have always been important to the rural lifestyle and are one of the first to sign up in each community. Broadband enables congregations to use tools like closed-circuit television and streaming to share their message with a broader audience.
Scientific Research. A local moth researcher has used her connection to add new varieties of moths into a database that tracks the locations of endangered species and the different types of insects located around the world. Wood says she likens internet access to having a “planetary library” on the screen in her house.
“We have received such great feedback from our members and subscribers,” said Wood. “Their desire to have the internet and the ways they’ve expressed their gratitude when it comes has been amazing to us. They’re so happy that progress is coming that they send their children out with lemonade every time a crew shows up. It’s very fulfilling to see the benefits that our subscribers get.”
Firefly now has more than 22,000 customers and is adding about 200 more per week. About 4,200 are in the ReConnect project area. Customer satisfaction is high with the company receiving a 90 on the American Consumer Index (the industry average is 65).
“We’ve been a USDA borrower on the electric side for years,” he adds. “The expansion to the ReConnect program and the telecom side has really benefited us and allowed us to experience a renewal similar to what happened in the 1930’s. We appreciate the partnership because it’s allowing us to be successful and provide internet in places nobody else would.”
Photo Caption: Utility workers from S&N Communications install high-speed internet fiber on a farm in central Virginia. The fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) network infrastructure put in place through this ReConnect project will deliver world-class gigabit-speed broadband internet service to an area that include 7,023 households, six healthcare centers, 15 educational facilities, and 15 critical community facilities spread over 704 square miles of rural central Virginia (USDA photo by Jay Pinsky).