by S.E. Warwick
Last December, the RUOnlineVA statewide, broadband-demand survey reported that “23 percent of respondents have no option for fixed internet access and 48 percent rely on technologies that are too slow or expensive to support critical applications.”
These statistics reflect conditions not only in rural southwest Virginia, but just a few miles from the affluent Short Pump area of Henrico County. Many Goochland County residents crawl along the information superhighway at horse and buggy speed, if they can get on at all.
The dearth of rural broadband hinders economic development and hobbles educational initiatives in much of Virginia. Goochland was recognized as an Apple Distinguished Program in 2015-2017 for its iPad initiative in elementary and middle schools. Yet students who live in areas without strong Internet connectivity cannot take full advantage of the program.
Former Goochland Superintendent of Schools, James Lane, who took the top job in Chesterfield last year, declared that the digital divide between students with ready access to broadband and those without may be the prime civil rights issue of the 21st century.
Home buyers and Richmond-based Realtors unfamiliar with Goochland assume, often to their regret, that the county has broadband access. In some places, it is not available at any price.
Comcast is the only wired broadband provider with a significant presence in Goochland. It covers a small portion of the county’s approximately 289 square miles, mostly in the relatively densely populated eastern and central parts.
Those who have access to Comcast are grateful for its presence. Even though there is high demand for service, the company resists expansion, citing the high cost of running lines to widely separated homes. Over the past few years, several subdivisions located near existing cable infrastructure have ponied up considerable sums to bring Comcast into their neighborhoods. In other areas, Comcast runs the lines at its own expense. Why the company puts its own money into one and not the other remains a mystery.
Other Internet options in Goochland include satellite and Verizon wireless. These are expensive and less satisfactory than a wired connection. It is not unusual for a family to spend $200 per month or more for speeds and data limits do not let them fully utilize Internet offerings.
Manuel Alvarez, Jr., a member of the Goochland Board of Supervisors, ran for office in 2011 on a pledge to expand rural broadband. He recruited Goochlanders with information technology expertise to study the issue and make recommendations.
The results were disheartening. A preliminary estimate of laying fiber optic cable throughout the county came in at a whopping $14.2 million in 2012 dollars. Goochland supervisors have expressed little interest in spending tax dollars on Internet expansion or getting into the Internet business. They would prefer private-sector providers to fill the void.
Goochland County now encourages developers to exploit existing utility connections in the planning stages of new communities. It has offered space on existing towers and water tanks to wireless providers, but, so far has no takers.
Each year, Goochland asks its General Assembly delegation for help in rural broadband expansion.
A bill introduced this year, HB 2108, initially had the opposite intent. The Virginia Broadband Deployment Act protected major players by requiring upstart broadband providers to reveal the ingredients of any “secret sauce” proprietary technology they planned to use to fill the coverage gaps, a sure way to discourage competition. The final, diluted version of this legislation, which has passed both the House and Senate, addresses transparency in setting rates.
Alvarez was one of many local officials representing rural areas who objected to this bill. “If the cable companies want to expand business in Goochland nobody is stopping them,” he said. “In fact, I could not encourage them more. They should not keep others or the locality from leveraging infrastructure to connect more citizens.”
Goochland continues to investigate strategies for countywide broadband expansion. Given the challenges of settlement patterns, topography, and existing infrastructure, this will likely not be a “one size fits all” solution. Options under consideration include easing or eliminating regulation where possible; pursuing grant funding; and entering advantageous public/private partnerships.
Rapid changes in technology should let market forces, not arbitrary legislation, choose the “who and how” of broadband expansion going forward.
S.E. Warwick, a Goochland resident, publishes the “Goochland on My Mind” blog. For years, she has been the only journalist regularly covering Goochland board of supervisor meetings.