Bacon Bytes

James A. Bacon

Virginia Is Slipping

in Broadband Deployment


A key component of the Warner administration's technology and economic-development strategies is to accelerate the deployment of broadband

Heads must roll!

But whose?

telecommunications capacity throughout the state. It is an article of faith that Virginia's small businesses and citizenry require high-speed Internet connectivity to participate fully in an increasingly information-intensive economy.


Now comes disturbing news from study conducted by AeA, a Washington, D.C./Santa Clara, Calif.-based trade association: "Broadband in the States 2003." As of June 2002, Virginia was falling behind other states in signing up new broadband subscribers. (See summary here.)


For all of Virginia's pretensions to be a tech-savvy commonwealth, according to Federal Communications Commission data, the Old Dominion logged 361,000 broadband subscribers in June 2002. That ranked us 14th nationally -- not terribly impressive considering that we have the 12th largest population. Virginia ranked a run-of-the-mill 25th in broadband subscriptions per household 


The good news is that the number of broadband subscribers in Virginia had jumped 23 percent in only six months, up from 293,000 in December 2001. The bad news is that broadband was being deployed even more rapidly elsewhere -- increasing 27 percent nationally over the same period. 


The AeA defines "broadband" as a connection to the home or business that is faster than 200 kilobits per second in at least one direction. The dominant technology for receiving broadband services in Virginia was cable with 238,300 subscribers in June 2002. DSL accounted for 75,500 broadband subscribers.


"Broadband subscriptions in Virginia have jumped substantially over the last two years," noted Greg Poersch, Executive Director of AeA's Potomac Council. "Nonetheless, Virginia must continue to promote broadband use to help enhance the state's competitiveness and productivity."


So, what is the Warner administration doing? On March 3 in Abingdon, Gov. Mark R. Warner highlighted the following strategies for the state to bring telecommunications to Virginia's Appalachian communities (quoting from the press release):

  • Serve as a facilitator between communities and the private sector to help aggregate demand for broadband access. Doing so will support economically feasible projects for telecommunications companies and ensure affordable broadband rates for individuals and businesses.
  • Provide technical assistance in communities to further aggregate demand for broadband and educate businesses about the application and marketing opportunities of high-speed Internet access.
  • Provide grants and funds to finance the gaps and complete "Last Mile" installation of fiber optics in the most remote rural communities.
  • Support legislation that calls for statewide broadband deployment.

That was the last official pronouncement on the subject. Has there been any follow up since then? Has the state done anything to help aggregate demand? Has it identified any pots of money -- even federal money -- to help localities complete "last mile" installation?


None that the administration has acknowledged on its websites.


The AeA report raises a fundamental issue. Focusing on Appalachia is fine, but how about the rest of the state? The information released by the AeA did not provide details on regional broadband deployment, but the statewide numbers would seem to suggest that lagging broadband deployment is a  statewide phenomenon, not one limited to Appalachia. Are the strategies enunciated for Virginia's rural areas even relevant to its cities and suburbs? I don't know. Does the Warner administration?


Another question: Who's in charge? Both George Newstrom, secretary of technology, and Michael J. Schewel, secretary of commerce and trade, include "broadband" in their portfolios. But which one is accountable for results? It wouldn't be fair to hold either gentleman accountable for Virginia's slow progress if neither has been given primary responsibility.


Ultimate responsibility rests with the guy in the governor's mansion: the man, ironically, who made his fortune as a venture capitalist financing the telecommunications industry, the man who made broadband deployment a major campaign theme. Let's hope that Gov. Warner has something up his sleeve. It would be embarrassing if next year's AeA report showed Virginia falling even farther behind.

-- June 9, 2003