Category Archives: Telecommunications

WTJU Podcast: COVID-19 and the Economy

By Peter Galuszka

Here’s is the twice-monthly podcast produced by WTJU, the official radio station of the University of Virginia. With me on this podcast  are Nathan Moore, the station general manager, and Sarah Vogelsong, who covers, labor, energy and environmental issues across the state for the Virginia Mercury, a fairly new and highly regarded non-profit news outlet. Our topic is how Virginia is handling the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Why Northam Is Such An Important Governor

By Peter Galuszka

This is a bit like throwing chum at a school of sharks, but here is my latest in Style Weekly.

I wrote an assessment of Gov. Ralph Northam that is overall, quite positive. My take goes against much of the sentiment of other contributors on this blog.

They are entitled to their views but, to be honest, I find some of the essays shrill and not really fact based. If Northam wants to delay elective surgeries at hospitals for a week or so, some want to empanel a grand jury.

An acute care health facility in Henrico County becomes one of the most notorious hot spots for coronavirus deaths and it is immediately Northam’s fault even though the care center has had serious problems that long predated the governor’s term in office.

He’s a trained physician who served as an Army doctor in combat during the Iraq War yet he is vilified as being incompetent and incapable of understanding the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s like the constant repetition of the “Sins of Hillary” on Breitbart and Fox News about emails and Benghazi.

Like him or not, Northam is bound to be one of the most consequential governors in Virginia history given the gigantic problem of the pandemic. He’s not a showboat salesman like Terry McAuliffe nor a smarmy, small-time crook like Robert F. McDonnell.

Anyway, here’s the piece.

A Look at Richmond and COVID-19

By Peter Galuszka

Here is a roundup story I wrote for Style Weekly that was published today that explains the effects of COVID-19 on the Richmond area. Hopefully, BR readers will find it of interest.

It was a tough piece to report. The impacts of the deadly virus are very complicated and multi-faceted. An especially hard part was trying to keep with the fast-changing news, notably the number of new cases and deaths. We were updating right up until the story closed Monday afternoon. It was hard to talk to people with social-distancing and closings.

The experience shows the delicate balancing act between taking tough measures to stem the contagion and keeping the economy going. My view is that tough measures are needed because without them, it will all be much worse, particularly more illness and death as the experience in Italy has shown.

Incredibly, our utterly incompetent president, Donald Trump, now wants to focus on the economy more than taking necessary containment steps. It’s far too soon for that. Regrettably, a number of Bacon’s Rebellion commenters are sounding the same irresponsible tune in keeping with their big business and anti-regulation laud of free market capitalism. Continue reading

The New Normal: Social Zoom and Quarantinis

Laura Bacon raises a Quarantini (recipe available upon request) in preparation for our virtual book club.

by James A. Bacon

We’ve been in self-isolation for only a week, and already we’re getting cabin fever. Laura and I were especially disappointed by the cancellation of our bi-monthly book club meeting, which would have entailed gathering more than ten people in one place.

Fortunately, thanks to the miracles of technology — broadband and Zoom, in particular — we managed to gather virtually. Some of our group had used Zoom for business, but no one knew how the program would work as a social media. It turned out pretty well. It wasn’t as satisfying as conversing (and eating and drinking) in person, but it was a lot more fun than sitting around by ourselves and watching re-runs of “Nurse Jackie.” Continue reading

Dominion, Apco Leverage Grid Investments to Promote Rural Broadband

Virginia broadband availability map. Source: Dominion Energy “Broadband Feasibility Report”

by James A. Bacon

Virginia’s investor-owned utilities, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Co., could become key players in the Northam administration’s push to extend broadband access to rural communities.

A State Corporation Commission ruling is expected today on an Apco proposal to extend “middle mile” broadband in partnership with Bluefield-based GigaBeam Networks, which will provide “last mile” connectivity to retail customers in Grayson County.

And last month, Dominion announced a partnership with Prince George Electric Cooperative’s RURALBAND subsidiary to provide Internet connectivity to 3,600 customers in Surry County. Dominion’s “middle-mile” service would link Prince George local network with high-capacity fiber-optic trunk lines.

The logic behind these partnerships is that, spurred by the Grid Transformation and Security Act of 2018, Dominion and Apco are already spending tens of millions of dollars to install broadband in their electric distribution systems. They can add enough additional capacity to serve nearby rural communities at marginal additional cost. Continue reading

Rural Broadband Projects Vary Widely in ROI


by James A. Bacon

Last week Governor Ralph Northam announced $18.3 million in Virginia Telecommunication Initiative grants to support 12 projects across the state. Leveraging $35 million in local and private matching funds, the projects will connect about 36,000 households, including thousands of businesses and “community anchor” institutions — an average state subsidy of roughly $500 per household on average.

Promoting rural broadband is a rare example of widespread bipartisan agreement in Virginia. Rural areas and small towns need high-bandwidth Internet access to compete for talent and corporate investment. That said, low-density human settlement patterns are expensive to serve with broadband, and the state has limited funds, about $35 million a year, to devote to this purpose.

Not all government-funded projects are created equal. Among the 39 applications submitted, some offer a better Return on Investment (ROI) than others. What’s the story behind these 12 winners? The governor’s press release doesn’t provide information beyond the size of the awards. But a number of local news stories provide additional details. Continue reading

Booming Telework Spurs Job Growth in Rural Virginia

Source: Statchat

by James A. Bacon

The Internet, pundits long predicted, would emancipate people from the necessity of living near where they worked. The connectivity provided by cell phones, laptops and broadband would allow people to plug in at home…. or even while lounging by the pool or on the beach. It was a nice fantasy, but telecommuting never lived up to its potential. Far from freeing people to live in the bucolic countryside, the logic of the Knowledge Economy impelled more people to the city. A new theory emerged: that the clustering of knowledge workers led to such huge gains in productivity and innovation that it outweighed any lifestyle benefits to telecommuting long distances. The bigger the labor market, the greater the pull.

Now Hamilton Lombard, a demographer at the University of Virginia’s Demographics Research Group, has been so bold as to suggest the dynamic might be shifting again. New Census Bureau data, he writes in the StatChat blog, suggest that over the past three years “the places Americans chose to live are becoming less connected to where their employer is based.”

What’s different all of a sudden? Perhaps the tighter labor market. Lombard suggests. As certain sectors of the economy experience labor shortages, employees have more bargaining power. He doesn’t say this, but I’ll throw it out there for consideration: Instead of pushing for higher wages, perhaps more people are using that bargaining power for more control over their work-life balance.

Whatever the reason, the impact of the increasing work-from-home phenomenon is potentially profound. Outside of Virginia’s major metro areas themselves, the regions that seem particularly effected are the Shenandoah Valley and the Chesapeake Bay. Continue reading

Bacon Bits: Quick Clips

5G rollout reaches Virginia. Outside of Crystal City and the Reagan National Airport, Hampton Roads is the first region in Virginia to enjoy 5G cellular access. Verizon has announced that its 5G Ultra Wideband mobility service is available in the Virginia Beach Oceanfront, downtown Norfolk, Newport News, Old Dominion University, Hampton, Chesapeake, and other high-traffic locations, reports Virginia Business. Said Governor Ralph Northam in a statement: “This technology will propel the industries that drive coastal Virginia — the military, advanced manufacturing, logistics, higher education, health care, tourism and more. We can’t wait to see new opportunities unfold for workers and innovators.” The service is available in 31 other cities.

Virginia unemployment still 2.6%. Virginia’s unemployment rate remained at 2.6% in November, even as the labor force expanded by 13,326, or 0.3%. Employment set a record of 4.4 million people, reports Virginia Business. While Virginia job creation has lagged the national pace, there is a bit of good news within the numbers: Job creation is market driven, not government-driven. Year over year, the private sector added 47,400 jobs while the public sector shed 7,300 jobs.

…But never fear, government is still creating some jobs. For example, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has hired a diversity and inclusion officer. The 450-person department, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch has “struggled” with diversity: only 9% of employees earlier this year were “people of color,” compared with the average at Virginia agencies of 36%. Meanwhile, Virginia’s Office of the State Inspector General is conducting an audit of diversity and inclusion practices within state natural Resources agencies, including the Department of Conservation and Recreation and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. Continue reading

Why Is Expanding Broadband Still Such a Problem?

by Peter Galuszka

U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-7th) has drawn lots of attention for her Rural Broadband Summit at Louisa County High School in Mineral on Aug. 17, which got plenty of comment from primarily rural residents unhappy that they can’t get access to quick, reliable Internet service.

Good for Spanberger, who beat Republican Dave Brat in last year’s hotly contested election. But this all brings questions: after so many years why are we still facing this?

I am now in my second decade of writing about the lack of broadband access in rural and inner city areas.

A piece I did for Chief Executive magazine about 10 years ago explored how mostly minority business owners in inner Philadelphia couldn’t afford broadband because the big providers, which would include Comcast and Verizon, cherry pick their locations. The firms wanted to boost margins so they pushed “triple play” (Internet, telephone and television) access in wealthier areas. Those not so privileged had to struggle with higher costs and access issues. “I don’t need 400 channels,” an inner city business owner told me. Continue reading

Hey, Why Not Satellites for Rural Broadband Access?

Everyone can agree, I think, that broadband Internet service is an essential utility for Virginia’s rural areas. There appears to be a wide base of support for the commonwealth to expend modest sums of money to help extend broadband to rural Virginians where the population density is insufficient to attract fiber-optic and wireless investment by private telecom companies. But I do have one question: What’s wrong with satellite broadband?

My question is prompted by an op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch today by Evan Feinman and Courtney Dozier, the point persons in Governor Ralph Northam’s bid to expand rural broadband access. They describe programs that use public dollars to grease partnerships between localities, internet service providers, and electric utilities. Since the beginning of the Northam administration, they note, state-funded programs have helped establish 71,000 connections to homes and businesses. And that’s just the beginning of what they have planned. They are asking for tens of millions of dollars more.

That all sounds great. When it comes to rural economic development, investing in broadband may be the most effective way to spend public dollars. Still, what’s wrong with satellite technology? Continue reading

Bacon Bits: Rural Development Edition

Seeding entrepreneurship. The Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority has approved $180,000 in seed-capital grants up to $10,000 for businesses that have been operating less than a year and have fewer than 10 full-time employees. The new businesses are projected to create $770,000 in total private investment and create 135 full-time and part-time jobs. Assuming the businesses deliver on their investment and jobs — not to be taken for granted — this looks like a promising approach to economic development. Since it started two years ago, reports the Bristol Herald-Courier, 53 businesses receiving micro-grants have generated $3.1 million in private investment and created 542 full- and -part-time jobs. Beats subsidizing an out-of-state company to build a light manufacturing plant and then shut it down 10 years later.

Addressing the doc shortage. Southwest Virginia has a chronic shortage of doctors, nurses and other health care providers. The United Company Foundation in Bristol is issuing a $1 million challenge grant to the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine in Blacksburg to lower medical school debt for doctors who agree to practice in Southwest Virginia, reports the Roanoke Times. Two $40,000 scholarships will be awarded this spring to third-year medical students. After they complete their residencies, they will be required to work for three years in the region.

To plug the broadband gaps, first you have to find the broadband gaps. Continue reading

Who’s Got Broadband and Who Doesn’t?

Percentage of households with broadband by locality. Source: Virginia Public Access Project based on the 2013-2017 American Community Survey.

This map, published today by the Virginia Public Access Project, shows clearly the metropolitan/rural divide in access to broadband Internet access. Some rural areas obviously enjoy better broadband service than others. Look at the cluster of counties to the south and west of the Washington metropolitan area. Look at the cities and counties running down the I-81 corridor from Winchester to Blacksburg. Many are low-density localities, but somehow they have higher broadband penetration. Continue reading

Small-Cell Broadband Comes to Fredericksburg

Fredericksburg soon could become the next city in Virginia with super-fast broadband, reports the Free Lance-Star. City Council approved a deal last week granting Cox Wireless Access LLC a 10-year, non-exclusive franchise to install the small-cell facilities that enable the next-generation 5G telecommunications network.

That decision follows previous deals with ExteNet to install 14 facilities on utility poles around the University of Mary Washington campus, and with Mobilitie LLC to install around a dozen boxes in the city’s public rights-of-way.

“Small-cell telecommunications infrastructure has generally been found to be a win–win for the city,” Public Works Director Dave King told the council. “Small cells help the city to achieve its goal of being the fastest broadband city in Virginia while also minimizing the visual impacts that are caused by the massive monopole towers that you may be accustomed to seeing in different areas around the region.”

The small-cell equipment is about the size of a piece of carry-on luggage. Its range is significantly shorter than typical cell phone coverage, however, so far more of the units must be installed.

Small cells are enjoying a global boom right now as wireless carriers compete to roll out 5G technology, the fastest, bestest broadband access yet. The Federal Communications Commission voted in April to limit the ability of local governments to tax and regulate small-cell deployment. Virginia got a jump start, however, thanks to legislation enacted last year, which curtailed the ability of local governments to impose special exemptions or special use permits for small cell facilities installed on existing structures where providers already have permission to co-locate equipment.  

Va Beach Snags Third Trans-Atlantic Cable

Route of proposed South Atlantic Express International data cable. Image credit: Virginian-Pilot

South Atlantic Express International Ltd. plans to build a high-speed data cable to connect South Africa with Virginia Beach. The third trans-Atlantic cable terminating in Hampton Road, it would provide yet another stimulus to Virginia’s burgeoning data center industry.

As a bonus, ACA International will relocate its headquarters from Northern Virginia to Virginia Beach. The project could bring 200 high-tech jobs to the city, including software engineers, data analysts, and cyber-security professionals, according to the cable company’s local partner, ACA International. Reports the Virginian-Pilot:

The announcement of a third cable comes on the heels of the completion of Marea – Microsoft and Facebook’s first subsea cable connecting Virginia Beach to Spain. Marea’s transmissions are “more than 16 million times faster than the average home internet connection, with the capability to stream 71 million high-definition videos simultaneously,” according to Microsoft.

A second cable, Brusa, is under construction, and will connect Virginia Beach to South America.

This is great news for Hampton Roads, which desperately needs to diversify its economy away the defense industry. I’m certainly no expert on the data center industry, but a third trans-Atlantic connection, which will also create high-speed data links to Nigeria and Brazil, could help other Virginia localities in their competition to lure new data centers. Virginia has one of the densest clusters in the country of high-capacity cable, but until recently it has not had direct connections overseas.

Let’s say I was a cloud provider wanting to serve the market in Brazil, Nigeria or South Africa. Would I rather locate my data center in Capetown, Lagos, Forteleza… or Virginia Beach, where (a) IT skills are abundant, (b) I could plug into one of the the premier land-line fiber-optic cable networks in the world, (c) there is a reliable, competitively priced and increasingly green source of electricity, and (d) the business climate is favorable and the political system stable?

Sounds like a no-brainer to me. Hopefully, Virginia Beach will see many more data centers coming its way.

(Hat tip: Paul Yoon)

5G Wireless: Build, Baby, Build!

The latest wave of wireless innovation is upon us — fifth generation wireless, otherwise known as 5G. The technology will multiply download speeds by 10 times or more, allowing wireless carriers to compete with cable companies for high-speed Internet access. As former FCC trade commissioner Robert McDowell writes in the Wall Street Journal today:

5G will enable advances in everything from driverless cars to the “tactile internet,” in which surgeons can perform operations and builders operate construction equipment remotely, and entertainment can include sensations beyond the audiovisual.

A 5G-enabled Internet of Things will connect people, data and new devices, creating a surge of economic growth. IHS Markit estimates that in the U.S. alone 5G will yield $719 billion in growth and 3.4 million new jobs by 2035.

To deploy the technology, 5G wireless carriers need to deploy thousands of “small cell” antennas the size of pizza boxes. Although these small cells are almost invisible, some state and local governments are treating them as if they are 100-foot towers. Outdated local requirements restrict carriers from placing small cells in local rights-of-way and on government-owned utility poles. Zoning ordinances designed for big cell towers require zoning board approval. Other localities impose prohibitive fees.

It was with a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach that I Googled “Virginia 5G regulations,” fearing that the Old Dominion still would be living up to the “Old” in its moniker, imposing all manner of unreasonable fees and restrictions. But I was pleasantly surprised. We have been making progress.

Last year Governor Terry McAuliffe signed S.B. 1282, which, according to Wireless Week, removed some regulatory barriers and sped up local permitting processes.

[The bill] stated that localities can’t require special exceptions or special use permits for small cell facilities installed on existing structures where providers already have permission to co-locate equipment, and gives municipalities 10 days to notify carriers of an incomplete application and 60 days to either approve or deny applications. The measure also caps municipal fees at $100 each for up to five small cell facilities on an application and $50 for each facility thereafter. Fees for carrier use of municipal rights-of-way are prohibited, except for zoning, subdivision, site plan, and comprehensive plan fees related to the general application. Additionally, the bill instructs municipalities that “approval for a permit shall not be unreasonably conditioned, withheld, or delayed.”

Consulting firm Accenture had said the wireless industry is looking to make “significant” infrastructure investments in the state, including $179 million in Richmond and $371 in Virginia Beach, reported Wireless Week. The firm also forecast that the investments would create more than 6,000 jobs across the state.

In the 2018 session, the General Assembly passed SB 405, which exempts wireless structures less than 50 feet tall from requirements to obtain special use permits under local zoning laws, as well as SB 823, which establishes an annual wireless infrastructure erected in public rights-of-way. The fee is $1,000 for structures that are 50 feet or shorter.  The bill awaits the signature of Governor Ralph Northam.

Bacon’s bottom line: If Virginia wants to run with the big boys in technology-intensive industries, it needs to encourage wireless operators to roll out 5G as rapidly as possible. What’s extra cool about the technology is that it doesn’t favor just the big metropolitan regions with dense populations. 5G can reach rural endpoints at one-fifth to one-tenth the cost of wireline connections, thus closing one of the big infrastructure barriers to rural economic development.

I don’t see any downside to 5G deployment. It’s driven by the private sector. It will open up high-speed Internet to virtually the entire state. All government has to do is get out of the way. The only losers are crybaby NIMBYs who can’t bare the thought of wireless towers less than 50 feet tall within their line of sight. Waaah. Build, baby, build!