Updates from the Commonwealth Connect Coalition

October 8, 2019

The Commonwealth Connect Coalition met on September 24 in at the Governor’s Summit on Rural Prosperity to provide the latest updates in the effort to empower Virginia communities to reach functionally universal broadband coverage. The Coalition provided updates on FOIA exemptions for VATI, utility middle-mile pilots programs, updates from King George County Supervisor and VACo Board of Directors member Ruby Brabo, and discussion of allocation of FCC funds to Virginia in the form of block grants.

In August, the Freedom of Information Advisory Council (FOIA Council) issued an advisory opinion related to the Council’s interpretation of SB 1492, legislation enacted on July 1, 2019, that added specific exemptions from disclosures under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for proprietary materials submitted to the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD).  In its opinion, the FOIA Council concluded that information submitted as part of a challenge to a Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI) application or in the course of monitoring and verification of an awarded VATI grant would not be exempt from FOIA disclosure under subsection 32 of § 2.2-3705.6.

Having received counsel from the Office of the Attorney General (OAG), DHCD will apply the FOIA exemption standards previously understood and described to the stakeholder community, and continue to accept requests for specific exemptions from disclosure under FOIA materials related to VATI applications, including materials submitted as part of a challenge to an application or materials submitted in the course of monitoring and verification of an awarded grant. DHCD will follow procedures previously outlined in the FY20 VATI Program Guidelines and Criteria for reviewing, granting, and maintaining information presented in support of applications exempted by disclosure from FOIA as allowed by subsection 3 of § 2.2-3705.6.

DHCD encourages applicants and challengers to consult their own legal counsel when evaluating the sufficiency of their submissions under the relevant statute, and further encourages collaboration between applicants and challengers to avoid challenges when possible.

The deadline for submitting a challenge for the FY20 VATI grant round is October 9th. A reminder that those wishing to request FOIA exemption for information related to or in response of a VATI challenge must submit a request to vati@dhcd.virginia.gov detailing exactly what information is being requested for exemption. Applicants wishing to submit multiple FOIA exemption requests for multiple VATI applications must do so individually in separate requests. DHCD will make a written determination within ten (10) days of the request as to whether FOIA-exemption will be afforded as well as the nature and scope of the protection. Please do not submit proprietary or confidential information with your initial request, only do so once you have received a response from DHCD affording FOIA exemption. If you have any questions, please contact vati@dhcd.virginia.gov.

Ed Diggs with Dominion Energy and Amanda Cox with Appalachian Power provided an update on the utility broadband program. Dominion Energy’s request for information (RFI), which closed in early September, saw more than 2 dozen responses from ISPs and localities alike. They are continuing to meet with potential partners, so please contact Dominion if you are interested. Ed Diggs discussed some of the unique challenges this program faces, such as easements and finding/prioritizing projects. Amanda Cox talked through Appalachian Power’s first project, a partnership with Grayson County and Gigabeam. Appalachian Power filed the project with the State Corporation Commission (SCC) on September 6. Since then, the SCC has set a timeline on the review process for the project, culminating in a 1/24/20 hearing. The filing, full timeline, and more information can be found here.

If you are interested in partnering with either Dominion Energy or Appalachian Power to serve unserved communities, please reach out to the folks listed below.

Amanda Cox, Appalachian Power – accox@aep.com

Ed Diggs, Dominion Energy – ed.diggs@dominionenergy.com

Ruby Brabo, South Region Director for the National Association of Counties (NACO) and King George County Supervisor shared her experience with broadband in King George; chiefly how an early partnership with a broadband provider fell through on bad terms and despite this setback, the county didn’t waiver from their goal of universal coverage and pressed onward. Ruby Brabo and King George County convened major providers in the County to gauge their interest in expanding, found both wireless and fiber providers to partner with, and have now set off on a plan for universal coverage. She stressed the importance of hybrid solutions, with both wireless and fiber, for rural counties looking to achieve universal broadband.

Lastly, Evan Feinman previewed a letter template in process for coalition members to sign and send to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Ajit Pai, asking the FCC to block grant broadband funds to the Commonwealth of Virginia. Doing so would potentially allow for easier distribution of funds to connect more households in a more efficient and shorter timeframe.

VACo Contact: Jeremy R. Bennett

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