When he was a colonel in the Virginia Militia, George Washington is said to have visited “Craig’s Camp,” a mountainous frontier outpost in southwest Virginia near the border of what would later become West Virginia. After the Seven Years' War, farmers and tradesmen were drawn to the area, establishing a settlement known then as “Newfincastle.” Over the years, the “fin” was dropped and the town became New Castle, the seat of Craig County.
Today – with the Jefferson National Forest comprising half of the county, its scenic byways, access to the Appalachian Trail, old churches, and family cemeteries – Craig County and the surrounding region remains steeped in early American history. And now, thanks to the Craig-Botetourt Rural Electric Cooperative (CBEC), this corner of rural Virginia has established a forward-looking outpost of Internet connectivity, and a new fiber frontier that planners hope to expand across the seven counties that make up CBEC’s 650 square-mile service area.
The Bee Online Advantage
It was in 2018 when CBEC began to seriously consider building a broadband network to serve its 6,800 members because, as the co-op’s website puts it: “Our members are experiencing what originally created the electric cooperative in 1936 – a lack of service. They lacked electricity  years ago; now they lack high-speed Internet [access].”
That lack of high-speed Internet connectivity is becoming a thing of the past, at least for co-op members in Botetourt County who now have access to an emerging Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) service through a CBEC subsidiary known as the Bee Online Advantage.
“We have about 10 percent of our membership covered right now. To build-out the rest of the network (into the adjacent counties) will probably cost somewhere in the $60 million range,” CBEC CEO Jeff Ahearn told us in an interview.
One of the main drivers of the network’s construction costs, Ahearn said, is the “very low (population) density” of CBEC’s service area, which averages about five members per mile and includes about 600 members in parts of Monroe County just over the state line in West Virginia.
Meanwhile, as construction crews set their sights on connecting members to the existing network, the CBEC board is working to determine how to pay for a full network build-out, keeping a close eye on Congress and the Biden administration as Democrats push for a massive infrastructure investment package that proposes tens of billions of dollars for broadband.
Beating the CARES Act Clock
Construction of CBEC’s core network began in February 2020, paid for with a $800,000 grant awarded through the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI) and a $200,000 grant from Botetourt County.
“We are working on the Botetourt County area because that county has been the most aggressive in getting this off the ground,” Ahearn said.
The recent expansion of the network further out into Botetourt County was financed with $750,000 in CARES Act funding.
“We were made aware of the CARES Act money in August of 2020 as we finished up the first phase. With a December 31 deadline to get moving, we had to find material and contractors by the end of September. We were able to start construction on the second phase in December. We were successful, but it was a challenge,” Ahearn added, noting that a two-month backlog in the purchase and delivery of fiber and other network components nearly nixed their chances to meet the CARES Act deadline.
In Craig County, where CBEC is headquartered, Ahearn said, “we are starting to see strong interest.”
To date, construction crews have deployed over 53 miles of fiber, passing 761 premises. Two months ago, the first member was connected to the network. Since then, that number is approaching 230.
For residential service, Bee Online Advantage offers four service tiers. The “Basic Package” is a 50 Megabits per second (Mbps) symmetrical connection for $60 per month; the “Fast” offers 100/100 Mbps for $75 per month; a “Super” offers 200/200 Mbps for $130 per month; and the “Ultra” offers 300/300 Mbps for $150 per month. The modem fee is $10 per month.
Subscribers also have several VoIP options for telephone service and can add a Roku streaming device for TV (subscribers who sign up for the “Super” or “Ultra” package get the Roku device for free).
“We are getting new signups each day,” Ahearn said. “We fully expect to hit a 50 to 60 percent take-rate by the end of the year.”
No Need to Relocate
As construction crews worked through the fall and winter, the excitement among county officials and residents alike was palpable.
“We needed this prior to the pandemic, however after the pandemic we really needed this for remote work, remote education, telemedicine and telehealth,” Botetourt County Administrator Gary Larrowe told WDBJ Channel 7 News as construction was underway.
“This is a labor of love, it’s a passion to actually get this delivered to the citizens in the community,” Larrowe said.
For Botetourt County resident Rebecca Potter, the new FTTH network will be a vast improvement compared to the “very slow” Internet service that’s plagued the region.
“I love it out here, so it would be really great to get part of the city life into the country life and make my life a lot easier too,” she told WDBJ in anticipation of getting service.
Hearing Potter’s enthusiasm prompted Ahearn to recall a conversation he had with the first subscriber to get the Bee Online Advantage. “The very first customer we connected told us they were looking to relocate their home-based business because of poor Internet service. But once they got our service, they told us, there was no need to relocate.”
Images courtesy of CBEC