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.
Another problem is that it is costly for any provider to go the last mile to deliver service to residents or businesses in less populated rural areas.
This has an impact. A 2016 report by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce showed that in rural areas, only 55% have access to high speed broadband. In Richmond, only about 30% of African-American residents do, the report says.
Those numbers may have come down a bit over the last three years but broadband is, strangely, still a big issue. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, by this July, Spanberger’s office had received 139 responses to her initiative.
It’s been clear for years that this is a case where government must step in when capitalism has failed. A similar problem existed in the Mid-South during the depression with electricity. Rural folks simply couldn’t get power so the Tennessee Valley Authority was created.
Conservatives were aghast. After all, Lenin said: “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.” But the job got done and the TVA area thrived.
There are some moves in Virginia to tap local and state funding and administration.
The Virginia Association of Counties has a plan. Also involved is the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Region Commission which was formed with a huge nest egg resulting from a 1996 settlement from four major cigarette makers. The idea is to help tobacco areas as people stop smoking due to health concerns. In June, the commission approved nearly $8 million to help 14 localities and counties with their broadband expansion plans.
Plus, there are ideas for public–private partnerships to make providing broadband to underserved areas more affordable. Taken together, there are projects underway in the Roanoke Valley, Portsmouth, Mecklenburg and Hanover Counties and the Eastern Shore, among others.
This also sounds good but why, then, is broadband still such a problem? There are reasons that aren’t always well-reported.
One is that they big players don’t also let on where they are or are going with service, supposedly for proprietary reasons.
A bigger problem is that politicians who receive political contributions from such large firms as AT&T and Comcast, pitch laws that try to keep government entities such as cities and counties, from helping.
In 2017, for instance, Del. Kathy J. Byron, a Republican from Bedford who accepts big broadband company donations, introduced a bill that would gum up governmental efforts to expand service by requiring exhaustive studies. Byron told me that year that her purpose was to make sure that the public isn’t stuck with the bill if a broadband project fails.
Her bill did not survive after a huge outcry from cities and counties. But she did have an effect.
The national group BROADBANDNOW claimed this year that Virginia is one of 26 states that have laws blocking or limiting government involvement.
The group says that while Virginia allows municipal governments to build their own broadband networks, they “must meet a bevy of requirements first.” For instance, they can’t use public money or charge rates that are lower than incumbent rates for similar service. There are extra financial reporting requirements that private firms don’t have to meet. If the cities or counties want to offer triple play services, they have to go through major reviews.
To be sure, there have been problems with some public broadband efforts. At Bristol Virginia Utilities, eight officials and contractors accepted goodies such as NASCAR tickets from a South Carolina service provider. They pleaded guilty in court.
Such transgressions should not be used to trash efforts to get government help with serving rural and inner city residents. Unless they do, kids won’t be able to do their homework. Economic development authorities won’t be able to recruit new business. There are government mandates regarding telephone service for emergencies, so why not broadband?
This has been going on for years. It is amazing that we’re still holding “summits” about expanding broadband service.There are currently no comments highlighted.