Virginia takes pride in its broadband communications prowess. The Internet got its start in Virginia as an advanced Pentagon research project. Dulles-based AOL popularized email in the 1990s. Today, about 70 percent of the world’s Internet traffic passes through the northern part of the state.
In Internet saturation, Virginia ranks fifth in the nation.
But that could be meaningless, depending on where you live. In rural areas, only 55 percent of homes have access to high-speed broadband, according to a 2016 Virginia Chamber of Commerce study. Inner cities are likewise shortchanged. In Richmond, only 29.8 percent of African American residents have Internet access, the study says. Service is spotty even in western Loudoun County.
This problem exists long after broadband went into wide use. Access is essential. “It’s incredible how much of the state is not served,” says Clay Stewart, chief operating officer of AcelaNet, a small Internet service provider based in Nelson County.
The problem is simple economics. Big providers such as Verizon and Comcast favor densely populated suburban areas where installation costs are low. They can boost margins by bundling Internet with 300-plus-channel cable television and phone service.
And they are not marching to remote areas to provide access. The biggest hang-up is the “last mile” to connect a distant household or business to a spoke-and-hub Internet network.
An obvious solution is for providers to link up with rural cities and counties. One approach is to create public authorities that can plan and fund access, as the cities of Salem and Roanoke and Roanoke and Botetourt counties have done.
Oddly, doing so can be a problem in pro-business Virginia, where corporations bankroll political campaigns. Lobbyists for larger cable companies have fought localities getting into the broadband business even though they seem loath to provide it themselves.
In January, Del. Kathy J. Byron (R-Bedford), who has received campaign donations from AT&T and Comcast, introduced a bill that would require a thorough and lengthy state study before a locality could subsidize Internet service. After that, the locality would have to open the job for bids. The bill fizzled after widespread protests from legislators from rural areas.
Byron says she is well aware of the problems of broadband access but is skeptical of localities getting involved. If private companies take business risks and they fail, “they go under but they don’t take taxpayers with them,” she says.
To be sure, there have been problems with public broadband authorities. Bristol Virginia Utilities, a public authority providing electricity and other services, got into broadband. Eight of its officials and contractors pleaded guilty to accepting NASCAR and horse-race tickets and other favors for contracts. Some of the goodies were provided by a South Carolina Internet firm.
Public officials from remote spots also may not have the technology expertise to get into the broadband business, says Alex Phillips, chief executive of High Speed Link of Harrisonburg. “Some of the supervisors are carpenters or lawyers who know their business but not broadband,” he says. State agencies can be notoriously slow about leasing deals for access to state-owned towers.
That’s not the case with some localities. Hanover County has broadband access rates of more than 80 percent, but rural areas in the eastern and western parts of the county had spotty service. In April, the county worked out a leasing deal with AcelaNet at two county towers, with plans for leasing space on three more.
In January, Fauquier County Public Schools partnered with Kajeet, a broadband provider, to bring WiFi hotspots to students’ schools and homes.
Such steps are welcome, but they still don’t do that much to resolve Virginia’s broadband problems. Several governors have begun initiatives to improve access, but the issues should have been resolved long ago.
West Virginia, with plenty of potential broadband users living in remote areas, may be a good example to follow. A bill moving through the state legislature would establish a 13-person broadband council and keep Internet providers honest by requiring them to advertise their minimum possible Internet speeds rather than tout maximums that don’t always apply.
President Trump could be a solution if he includes extending broadband to underserved areas in his plans for a $1 trillion infrastructure bill. But probably not. His budget proposal would cut $2 billion from a federal program that is used, in part, to extend broadband in rural areas.