Members of the Bedford County Board of Supervisors voiced concern Jan. 27 about an additional delay in a long-awaited project to expand high-speed internet access to residents in Bedford County.
The board voted unanimously to table a vote to extend the project completion deadline of a project that would provide about 95 percent broadband coverage throughout Bedford County to Aug. 14. The original deadline — December of 2019 — was extended in November 2019 until April.
The board was scheduled to vote on a resolution granting Roanoke-based Blue Ridge Towers an extra 96 business days past the previous extension to complete the $3.5 million, 12-tower system that is part of the county’s broadband initiative. The board unanimously voted Jan. 27 to postpone a vote on the requested extension until the board reviews the contract with BRT and votes on whether to grant an extension during its next scheduled meeting in February.
According to Bedford County Administrator Robert Hiss, BRT requested the extension due to unanticipated administrative challenges on some of the sites. The extension would have no effect on the project’s budget, Hiss said. An earlier change order for the project — which was approved October 2019 — was to accommodate the relocation of a water line at one of the sites.
“These delays are the result of a little bit of everything,” Hiss said Jan. 27. “It is not the fault of any one party and the county staff is recommending that the board grant this extension.”
The project has been one of the board’s highest priorities for the past three years because more than half of Bedford County’s 764 square miles has little to no internet service. In 2017, The Atlantic Group was contracted for $53,000 by Bedford County to conduct a study and provide a network design for the county.
Blue Ridge Towers was one of four companies that responded to the county’s request for proposals issued in 2019 to implement the recommended plan.
Under the proposal, Blue Ridge Towers will construct 10 new towers at sites throughout the county, along with installing equipment on two existing towers. The new towers would be located in the town of Bedford, Big Island, Boonsboro, Hardy, Huddleston, Mount Dumpling, Moneta and Thaxton; county-owned structures in Montvale and New London would be fitted with communications equipment.
Blue Ridge Towers, through its subsidiary, BRISCNET LLC, will be the wireless internet service provider on the tower system. The company also will install nearly 21 miles of fiber-optic cable and will manage and maintain the towers for the county. Bedford County will retain ownership of the towers and Blue Ridge will lease the towers for five years for $10 a month for each tower during the first year, $100 a month for the second year, $150 a month for the third year, $250 a month for the fourth year and $400 a month for the fifth year.
Blue Ridge Towers President Anthony Smith last year said his company’s proposal forecast the project would go live in early 2020 but expected it to be completed ahead of schedule and to go live in December 2019.
Several members of the board of supervisors expressed “frustration” at another delay.
“We have people calling us every day,” District 3 Supervisor Charla Bansley said Jan. 27. “They are not getting what they were promised.”
District 5 Supervisor Tommy Scott said he was reluctant to support extending the contract after “multiple delays.”
“I don’t see why we should extend the deadline after we have been told time and time again this would be done by a certain time,” Scott said. “I have gotten calls from people in my district and they told me BRT held community meetings where they told people these delays were our fault. I can’t see where we have held this project up because it has been one of our top priorities so I don’t see why we should give them more time.”
Hiss said under the terms of the agreement, BRT could request extensions on the project’s completion if there were mitigating circumstances.
“There were some tower sites that turned out not to be ideal,” Hiss said. “Staff feels that an extension should be granted because of things that were not the fault of any party.”
“This is the first project of this sort Bedford County has ever undertaken,” Hiss said. “We are in unchartered territory and we are learning as we go.”
The board agreed to discuss the extension on Jan. 30 during a special closed session after the board’s joint session with the Bedford County School Board.
“They [BRT] are asking us for 96 days,” District 1 Supervisor Mickey Johnson said. “We are simply asking for a few days to discuss this.”
District 4 Supervisor John Sharp said the board could vote again on the request during its next scheduled meeting in February.
“This will give us a hard and fast date of completion,” Sharp said. “If they don’t meet that deadline in August, we will have penalties in place.”