By Brandon Martin
The city is set to provide broadband service to all residents by the end of the year, according to local officials.
City Manager Leon Towarnicki said that additional MINet towers and infrastructure can now be built after the city received a $502,344 grant from the state.
Gov. Ralph Northam recently announced that Virginia allocated $30 million in funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Recovery, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to improve broadband access in underserved localities.
Following the announcement, Towarnicki said “the city hastily put together an application for a project for that. We applied literally within days, I think, of that announcement. Within about a week, we heard that our application had been approved.”
Towarnicki said that the grant was structured to provide internet services to unserved or underserved school students. Martinsville City Public Schools (MCPS) provided the city with a map of where the unserved/underserved students live.
“They are literally all over the city,” Towarnicki said. “You’d think they may be concentrated in certain areas of the city, but they are literally all over the place.”
By agreeing to provide the internet service to the students, Towarnicki said the grant will expand their already existing MINet infrastructure.
“We will have the capability to serve the entire city once this infrastructure is in place,” he said.
Towarnicki said that the city is looking to use existing water tanks for the additional antennas that will provide coverage for “99.9 percent” of the city. In addition, Towarnicki said the service would extend “pretty far” into Henry County as well.
MCPS is working to identify students that want the internet service. Once they are identified, Towarnicki said the families would have a few administrative items before receiving service.
“For confidentiality reasons, you have to be careful how you handle student’s names and addresses,” he said. “Then we have to get permission to actually attach equipment to homes to be able to receive the internet.”
Towarnicki said the project has to be completed by the end of December, with a six-week goal in mind.
City Attorney Eric Monday said that parents of unserved/underserved students will be receiving a letter soon that will include the permission slip.
“We have to have permission to attach this to your home, so please do not procrastinate when you get that,” Monday said. Due to the time constraints, Monday said to return the form to the schools “as quickly as you possibly can. We need to get the show on the road in order to get this completed by the end of the year so parents, don’t wait. Fill it out and send it back in.”
Towarnicki said the schools have a grant that will cover the cost for the subscription to MINet.
“The good news for us is it enables us to get all the equipment in to serve the entire city so we aren’t just simply serving the students. This will give us the capability to provide this wireless to the home capability for all citizens,” he said.
Hotspots also will be provided at the Blue Ridge Regional Library, the Municipal Building and all city schools.
“It’s a great opportunity. It’s a wonderful grant that I think is going to enable us to finally push this thing over the finish line. The long-term benefits for the city, I think are going to be substantial so we are tickled to death,” he said.
Monday also noted that the city’s MINet system also serves parts of Patrick County. The administration building, the courthouse and library are all MINet customers, according to Monday.
“An upgrade of that was also part of this grant,” Monday said. “Our footprint will extend far into the county, so this is not something that is merely benefitting the city.”
Mayor Kathy Lawson said that in the past, residents couldn’t access MINet unless they were “near a business” which makes the expansion “a really good opportunity for our citizens.”
In other matters presented, the council:
*Heard an update on the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Blue Ridge from Executive Director Joanie Petty.
*Adopted on second reading, Ordinance 2020-4, increasing the courthouse security fee from $10 to $20.
*Adopted Ordinance 2020-5, allowing law enforcement to discharge firearms to kill coyotes.
*Adopted a resolution regarding Land Use Permits that may be occasionally required from the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) related to City work on VDOT right-of-way.
*Heard an update on the 2021 Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) list. Approval of the 2021 CEDS project list will occur at either the November 24 or December 8 Council meetings.
*Approved the quarterly finance report for the period ending September 30.