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Legislators and County leaders react to Shentel ending internet service

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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) – Shentel has announced that its Beam internet service will end on November 30 and many in rural areas of Augusta and Rockingham Counties will be left with limited options for high-speed internet connection.

More than 1,100 homes in Augusta, Rockingham, and Shenandoah Counties use Beam internet and will lose their coverage. On Wednesday WHSV caught up with some Valley legislators and county leaders to get their reactions and discuss possible solutions.

“A lot of people are going to have no bridge whatsoever. They’re not going to be able to find replacement internet service and that’s deeply troubling,” said State Senator Mark Obenshain, a Republican who represents Rockingham County.

Senator Obenshain said according to numbers he got from Shentel more than 500 homes in both Augusta and Rockingham Counties use beam internet. He hopes Shenel will reconsider ending the service.

“Shentel has such a rich history of being an early provider of rural telephone service that this was something that really fit their niche,” said Obenshain. “A lot of people have grown to rely upon them and have signed up with the understanding and trust that it’s gonna be there until they are able to get wired internet to their homes.”

Rockingham County Republican Delegate Tony Wilt said he was saddened to hear that Shentel was discontinuing Beam but gave them credit for the efforts they made to expand broadband in the rural parts of the valley.

“This has been an issue that’s been brewing for a number of years and from where I sit hats off to Shentel for stepping up, look what they did. They invested tens of millions of dollars to put Beam out there and put it forward to the citizens, they did it on their own initiative and didn’t wait for government money,” said Wilt.

Wilt hopes that other carriers will step up and expand coverage. In the meantime, he said that addressing rural broadband access remains an important issue.

“COVID brought that to light. We shut down schools and expected children to learn via the internet when a good portion of them didn’t have the internet and we’ve seen the results of that. It is not for that reason alone that we needed to move forward but that really highlighted the need for our most rural citizens,” said Wilt.

Some people in Augusta County are concerned about the impact of Beam being discontinued with limited options for those in the county’s rural areas.

“The digital divide in Augusta and Rockingham Counties is taking a major step backward. Unfortunately for most of the individuals that are impacted, we have subpar or some individuals will have no internet access,” said Amy Thornton, a member of the Augusta County Broadband Committee.

Augusta County Republican Senator Emmett Hanger said he has been in touch with Shentel since the announcement. He said that although nothing has been finalized he is confident the company will reach an agreement to transition its internet service to another provider.

“I feel encouraged that there can be a bridge there and whoever it’s handed off to will be able to take over before these individuals, roughly 1500 individuals lose their connectivity,” said Hanger.

He said that from his understanding Shentel’s decision to end Beam is a little more complicated than it may seem.

“They were kind of pushed into a decision based on some of the contracting that’s being pushed out as far as whose going to do what as far as territory and licensing and that kind of put them in a box as far as what they could,” he said.

For those in rural areas of the valley, help will arrive down the road. Both Rockingham and Augusta Counties will get nearly universal broadband connection through a regional partnership headed by All Points Broadband that was launched last year.

“They’re in the early stages of that. They’re gonna use Dominion Power and Shenandoah Valley Electric’s pipeline, their fiber pipeline. That’s gonna take a while to fully develop and they’ll be making connections about this time a year from now,” said Rockingham County Administrator Stephen King.

The project received a $95 million provisional Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI) grant in December. The project will include Augusta, Clarke, Fauquier, Frederick, Page, Rappahannock, Rockingham, and Warren Counties.

It will include 3,100 miles of fiber infrastructure and connect 41,000 currently unserved locations. 7,580 of those locations are in Rockingham County.

“They have three years to get the project done with the state funding. We don’t know what they’re going to do when and what they’ll do first. Their goal is once they get their contractors in an area working to keep them active and to keep them busy, so they don’t leave the area and go somewhere else to do other work,” said King.

King said that Shentel reached out to him personally to let him know about the ending of Beam.

“It affects, according to their numbers, 500-550 individuals (In Rockingham County). We know a lot of people who have that service, county employees use that service and one of our board members uses that service. So it’s definitely something we’re aware of and it is going to create a void and gap for folks who rely on it,” he said.

The regional broadband initiative will make a major difference for both counties, but it will be at least a year before connections begin and three before they are all completed.

“The challenge for myself and everyone else that is a Beam customer is what do we do in the meantime? It’s no longer acceptable to tell people who live in rural areas ‘that’s a trade-off you make for having a home in the country’. I liken it to the need for the Rural Electrification Act of 1936,” said Amy Thornton.

Senator Mark Obenshain said that while the regional broadband project is a big win but in the short term losing Beam still stings.

“It is coming. We have funding, both state and federal funding, and it’ll be here but it just can’t be magically dropped into place overnight,” said Obenshain. “We’ve been working hard to get internet to these underserved areas in rural parts of Rockingham, Augusta, Page, and Shenandoah Counties. It’ll be here soon but this is a big setback for a lot of families.”

Shentel sent WHSV the following statement on its decision to end Beam.

The decision to end Beam service was not easy. We understand the impact the removal of Internet service will have on individuals and families. We invested tens of millions of dollars to ensure that those in need of access to Internet, especially during the height of the pandemic, would have it.

However, at this time, Shentel is transitioning its spectrum in these areas to a national wireless provider that will be able to provide additional wireless broadband coverage. Over the next few weeks, we will provide additional details as our spectrum transition progresses.

We saw ourselves as part of the solution to close the digital divide and worked in a grant selection process with the Commonwealth to receive funds from the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI) to continue, and even expand this service.

Unfortunately, due to several factors, the grant landscape changed dramatically, and the funds were allocated to fiber providers across our Beam area. We recognize that this is a difficult transition, but it is our understanding that the companies that received grant funding will be installing fiber networks in these areas.

In addition to a new national wireless provider adding wireless broadband service in these areas, it is also our hope that the subsidized fiber companies will be able to provide broadband service so that the communities will have multiple alternatives for their Internet service.

Please visit the Commonwealth Connection map at: https://commonwealth-connection.com/ for the latest information on the grants for fiber service.

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