Large Lots and Broadband Access

While Tim Kaine and Jerry Kilgore attacked each other with negative advertising, shedding lots of heat but little light, someone was actually exploring some useful ideas yesterday for creating prosperity and making Virginia more liveable. At Landsdowne conference center, the 2005 Loudoun County Economic Summit focused on the imperative of deploying broadband across the state. The attendees actually brushed up against a profound truth, although it’s not clear from the acount in, how clearly they understood it.

According to “Joe T. May (R-33) and U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA-10) [called] for a more serious push by government agencies to ensure that high speed connections to the nation’s telecom backbone are available to all residents and businesses. In many areas, phone and cable companies are moving to expand broadband capabilities, however, low density or low income markets that don’t fit their economic model aren’t getting the connections.” (My emphasis.)

Bruce Tulloch, vice chairman of the Loudoun County board of supervisors, echoed the theme. According to “Tulloch noted that his home in the CountrySide community in Sterling doesn’t have cable access and was considered a ‘large lot’ neighborhood when he sought to get a broadband line extended to his home. “

What lessons were drawn? Here’s Joe May:”If Virginia is to remain competitive, we must expedite the installation of the telecommunications [infrastructure].” He said he is considering a modernized Virginia version of the Rural Electrification Agency of the 1930s that brought power to the state’s boonies. This project would help fund ubiquitous access to high-speed Internet service throughout the state and essentially make it a utility.

Here’s another idea, and it won’t require setting up a government utility: Get local governments to stop mandating too-big-to-serve lot sizes! The private sector isn’t running cable lines to large swaths of Loudoun County because the houses are too far apart to make it economical. It’s that simple. If people live in houses on isolated, large lots, they shouldn’t expect the rest of society to pick up the tab for their poor decision of where to live. If they really want broadband Internet access, let them go out and buy a satellite dish!

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  1. TheModerate Avatar


    I agree 100%! In Loudoun County it is the classic, “I want a rural with amenities lifestyle.”

    However, as far as the infrastructure is concerned 5 acres (or more) between lots is the same no matter where you are. How do you justify subsidizing a place like Lee County and not a place like Loudoun County? Technically, they both are rural.

  2. This is where muni-wireless and a TRULY free market, could make a huge difference.

  3. The Authoritarian Boenau Avatar
    The Authoritarian Boenau

    Amen, Brother Jim (and others)!

    I know several people who live in rural areas, and they aren’t crying about broadband. The like the slower pace.

  4. Ray Hyde Avatar

    It is not necessarily that it is not profitable, but that it is more profitable to work elsewhere first. Given limited resources they will tend to pick cherries first. Note that it is not only the large lots, but also the low income areas that are not being serviced.

    Also the technology and market is changing rapidly, so indecision is the cause of some delay. DSL requires that you be within x thousand feet of the switch. Distance (and profit) is not a problem for ordinary phone, but you can’t carry the extra band width as far on twisted pair. It doesn’t matter what size the lots are, if you are more than x thousand ffet from the switch, you are not getting service.

    Cable can throw a signal farther but coax is more expensive to string, and it is an entirely separate infrastructure that has to be built from scratch. You can always get satellite service, also not cheap. Or you can service over the cellular phone, if the lunatics will just allow towers to be constructed.

    There is nothing new about wanting a “rural with amenities” lifestyle, check out the Biltmore mansion, for example. Being able to pay for it is something else again. As the Biltmores found out.

    But your argument about lot sizes doesn’t make sense. A small lot in the wilderness has the same problems as a large one. On the other hand, if you have enough small lots in the wilderness, voila, you have a village. Maybe, but more likely an ugly subdivision built as required by zoning laws. And the shopping area will be built remotely because of zoning laws.

    Complaining about other peoples poor choices on where to live shows a lack of imagination. In the first place, many people are more or lessed trapped where they are. Sure, at some level they can make a choice, but if the choices are either unrealistic, socially unacceptable, or financially stupid, the “choices” don’t amount to much. In the second place, for those that do move, the choices that are made available to them are are largely the result of zoning decisions made by others.

    It costs a lot more to move than to install satellite, if that is what it takes. Then of course, if you do move, someone else will still be stuck with the problem, so that is not really a solution. Some of those places have been there for generations before infrastructure was invented, let alone broadband. What we have is new opportunities, not bad choices.

    The Moderate is right, if you are willing to subsidize one far out area, you can’t very well complain about another. So the question is whether the subsidy is worth it. After all broadband is suppose to reduce driving, right? Highways are supposed to support commerce, tourism, and public safety, right? Sewers are supposed to support public health and the environment, right? Where is the trade off between the cost of the subsidy and the cost to public health or safety for NOT providing the subsidy? We don’t know the answer.

    Since the real reason for making smaller lots has nothing to do with costs, travel, or congestion and everything to do with saving open space, smaller lots can’t be the whole answer. Ideology runs smack into reality.

    How do you decide who is allowed to make smaller lots and who isn’t? In some locations smaller lots are supposedly preferred for reasons of various social costs and benefits that we don’t know how to measure. In other locations larger lots are preferred for environmental and aesthetic reasons that we also don’t know how to measure.

    How large is too large? Large lots were supposed to prevent sprawl and preserve open space and farmland, but that didn’t work. Are you now saying that you are willing to let farms subdivide? If you can’t farm a farm at a profit, is it still a farm?

    If the Biltmores can’t subsidize open space, farmers surely can’t. So you have rural counties (and some not so rural) vainly trying to subsidise open space through large lots, “tax breaks”, and PDR’s. But such places have a lot more land that needs subsidies than they have residents to pay them.

    In Fairfax county (and other places) they are planning to subsidize affordable housing for people who earn less than $89,000 per year. And they are planning to mandate that builders provide the homes. If you think subsidizing rural broadband is expensive, wait till you try subsidizing both open space and density.

    Or, you could forget mandates and subsidies an let people do what they want.

  5. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Ray asks: “How do you decide who is allowed to make smaller lots and who isn’t?”

    I wouldn’t decide, Ray. The market should decide. But the market can’t decide because local zoning codes and comprehensive plans mandate crazy things like 10-acre lots! I don’t want to tell anyone what they have to do. I just want to loosen up the system so people have a broader, market-driven choice of how and where to live.

  6. Ray Hyde Avatar

    Tell me about it.

    At present I am effectively mandated for a 170 acre lot, and also mandated to do nothing with it but agriculture with it. As pleasant as it is, this is not a situation that the market tells me makes any sense whatever.

    Then again, it is in a scattered location.

    But I’m with you on this: people should be free to make lousy choices, otherwise we have no way to value the good choices.

    Sometimes we even have to subsidize lousy choices, but hey, taxes are one of the prices you pay for freedom. Who knows, if this place had broadband, I might be able to make a living here without ever leaving home.

  7. Land reform? Look if you want to see a difference, just change the state law that discourages municipalities from offering wireless internet and phone and competing with the telecom empires.
    We need a TRULY free market.

  8. This really won’t be a problem in the next 2 years. Read about WiMAX. Kind of like WiFi (ie. wireless internet) but no line-of-sight is required and the opperating distance is measured in tens of miles.

    It is the perfect last mile solution, and doesn’t require running any sort of cable at all.

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