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Innovative Rural Broadband Initiatives and Economic Development Collaboration Highlight Regional Rur

MARTINSVILLE, Va. - Business leaders and government officials shed light on cutting-edge rural broadband initiatives and gave updates on collaborative economic development efforts designed to boost economic development and job growth in rural Southern Virginia at last Thursday night’s Regional Rural Caucus meeting in Martinsville.

Held at New College Institute (NCI), the meeting was organized by the Virginia Rural Center and supported by Virginia legislators, including Senator Frank Ruff and Delegates Danny Marshall and Matt Fariss. It included participants from the GO Virginia District 3 region, a group of business and civic leaders focused on economic development opportunities specific to the defined territory of Southern Virginia cities and counties.

Delegate Marshall opened the meeting, discussing the background of NCI and how important the presence of a higher education institution is to economic development. Noting that Martinsville at one point was “the richest community per capita in the whole Commonwealth,” Marshall said that one of the things needed to bring prosperity back to the region is an educated workforce.

NCI Executive Director Leanna Blevins, Ph.D. described the need for higher education collaboration in rural areas, giving updates on partnerships with four year colleges such as James Madison University.

She also highlighted NCI’s new Center of Advanced Manufacturing, established through a partnership with Patrick Henry Community College and Eastman, one of the region’s largest employers. Benefitting from experiential learning, students participate in classroom learning at Patrick Henry Community College and then go to NCI to learn on a one-of-a-kind piece of manufacturing equipment designed and built for the program.

Other NCI partnerships include Longwood, Radford and the University of Virginia.

“We want to transform rural Virginia by taking the best of traditional education and applying that in new and unique ways,” said Blevins.

Liz Rafferty, policy and legislative director of the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), touched on collaboration and education in her updates on the GO (Growth and Opportunity) Virginia program. The program, which launched in 2016, works to drive public private partnerships and incentivize localities to work together to create high-paying jobs.

Rafferty said that support and administrative functions are now in place in each of the nine GO Virginia regions across the state, along with initial budgets. After a September board meeting, when plans have been adopted, $30 million in collective funding will be divvyed up amongst GO Virginia regional council applicants.

Among other goals, Rafferty noted that GO Virginia initiatives could help drive improvements in commercialization of university research.

“Virginia has some amazing colleges and universities here, and we do not do a great job capitalizing on the research that’s done here,” said Rafferty. “The intellectual property generated by those universities, there’s no commercialization of that, so enabling that to occur is important.”

Also at the meeting, Southern Virginia GO Region 3 Council Chairman Charles Majors provided an update on the Growth and Diversification plan being submitted for the region and spoke about critical areas of opportunity such as broadband internet access.

“The opportunity for broadband and connectivity will be critical as we try to compete for the attraction of businesses,” said Majors. “It’s about how to make us known as ‘the most prominent gig speed region’.”

The meeting also included compelling updates from Tad Deriso, president and CEO of Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corporation (MBC), who described partnerships with major companies like Microsoft and organizations such as the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission.

Deriso gave updates on the recently launched last-mile broadband program, and how Microsoft specifically chose Southern Virginia as a pilot location for its new Rural Airband Initiative. The pilot initiative seeks to connect homes in rural Charlotte and Halifax Counties to the internet with a variety of new technologies, including wireless signals delivered over TV “white spaces”, or unused frequency spectrum.

“We are on track for about 1,000 households connected in the next 5 months,” said Deriso. “This project is the largest project of its kind anywhere in the world, using this technology. “

During his remarks, Deriso showed two videos produced by Microsoft that demonstrated the impact of the program in bridging the “homework gap”. Families with a child who is enrolled in school receive the internet access at no cost as part of the program’s Homework Network offering.

“We’ve shown that it works, and we’ve shown that we can get this connected,” said Deriso. “If a student wants to watch a thousand hours of Kahn Academy on how to do Algebra, you can do that at zero cost.”

Following Deriso’s presentation was Bob Bailey, Executive Director of the Center for Advanced Engineering and Research (CAER).

Bailey discussed the new SOVA Innovation Center for TV White Space Broadband Development which launched earlier this summer through a partnership between MBC and wireless communications firm Adaptrum. Among other goals, the new Center seeks to drive down the cost of the home antennas used to receive the white space signal, which Bailey said was an ideal solution for broadband challenges in rural areas.

“For a variety of reasons, TV white space seems to be the optimal solution for about 80% of the problem,” said Bailey. “To over simplify it, we’re talking about broadcasting out these signals and essentially putting rabbit ears in these homes.

Other broadband internet developments involving Microsoft that are expected to benefit rural Virginia include two new submarine cables from Spain and Brazil that will connect to the U.S. in Virginia Beach.

Deriso suggested that given MBC’s broadband partnerships with Microsoft, these developments would give international businesses looking to build or expand operations in the U.S. another reason to strongly consider the Southern Virginia region.

“A company says ‘hey, I want to locate in the United States and I need a manufacturing presence, I need good skilled workers, and I also need to communicate with corporate headquarters in the UK or Europe’,” Deriso explained. “We have something that North Carolina, South Carolina and others do not have, which is a fiber network directly connected to those cables.”

Bailey echoed Deriso’s remarks and the importance of broadband to economic development across the region. “Southern VA is at ground zero of maybe one of most significant rural broadband initiatives. It’s a real opportunity.”

The last speaker of the evening was Ron Cerniglia, Director of Corporate and Regulatory Affairs, Mid-Atlantic Region for Direct Energy. Cerniglia talked about the benefits of consumer directed energy programs to spur commercial and industrial economic development as well as increase consumer choice for residential service.

Additional regional rural caucus meetings are being held in other GO Virginia Regional Council districts in an effort to align with regional economic development issues and priorities throughout rural Virginia.

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