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A great leap for broadband?
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A great leap for broadband?

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People and politicians (and on more than one occasion, editorial writers) have been harping on the need for rural broadband for so long will we know what to do when we finally have it?

We need to start preparing for that happy day, which might be just three years away.

Gov. Ralph Northam has proposed using $700 million of Virginia's $4.3 billion share of so-called federal stimulus funds for rural broadband, an amount that is said to be sufficient to get the state as close to 100% broadband coverage as possible by 2024.

This calls for context, although nearly universal broadband coverage is pretty good context on its own. This is our rural electrification moment, if you're looking for some historical perspective. Franklin Roosevelt got political credit for that, although neither Northam nor President Joe Biden is likely to get the same credit here, although perhaps they should. We live in different times. Still, it's worth pointing out that an awful lot of Republican-voting rural areas are going to owe their rural broadband to a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress. The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, the legislation from whence this funding will come, was opposed by every Republican in Congress. How many, though, will someday show up at all the ribbon-cuttings?

You can argue about all those politics over whatever internet service you have now; just keep in mind that there are still a lot of people in Virginia who don't have that opportunity to argue politics with strangers. Or watch the latest shows on Netflix and Disney Plus. Or make a telehealth appointment. Or run a business, which is one way that rural broadband becomes an economic development issue. We've heard of houses that had a hard time selling because they didn't have broadband, so it's a broader economic question than just entrepreneurs. Broadband is now an expectation much like, well, electricity.

This $700 million that Northam is proposing (and which the General Assembly will act on during a special session next month) is an enormous investment. We promised context so here's some more:

Not until 2016 did Virginia get into the business of underwriting the extension of broadband fiber into unserved areas. (Some basic economics here: Telecoms have no problem laying their own fiber in populated areas because the investment pays for itself; but they're not so keen on laying fiber in rural areas where there are far fewer customers. This is one of those pesky problems that the free market alone can't solve.) That first year then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe proposed $2.5 million for the newly created Virginia Telecommuication Initiative; the Republican-run General Assembly cut that to $1 million. (Maybe a Democratic-run General Assembly would have done the same; who knows? But this is how it played out.) Some more context: While Virginia was putting up $1 million for rural broadband, Minnesota — then a state with a Republican legislature — was putting up $35 million. Our effort looked pretty puny, then and maybe politics had nothing to do with that, just priorities. The reality is that rural broadband has been the rare issue that has garnered bipartisan support; some of the most creative legislation about how to extend broadband into rural Virginia has come from Del. Israel O'Quinn, R-Washington. He sponsored legislation that allows telecoms to piggyback on work being done by Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Co. He says the pilot test of that program in Grayson County will turn that county from one of the least-connected counties in the state to one of the best-connected.

By the 2017 governor's race, both candidates pledged to expand that program and the winner — Northam — has. Since he took office, the state has spent $124 million on broadband, so despite a slow start we have made up a lot of ground.

Now we're looking at $700 million — 5.6 times as much. Or, 700 times as much as the General Assembly initially appropriated that first year back under McAuliffe. That's some powerful context.

But wait, there's more: Evan Feinman, Northam's chief broadband adviser, says this should get us as close to 100% coverage as is technically possible. He tells us: “It's hard to say — specifically — what the final buildout will be but certainly above 95% of locations, extremely likely above 98% of locations. For very remote folks, we'll do our best, but at some point it becomes impossible to justify millions of dollars for individual locations.”

Now for some more context: If we really do hit 98% coverage, how does that compare to other states?

Broadbandnow Research says New Jersey is already at 98% — 98.1% if you want to be precise. New Jersey is also mostly urban and mostly flat, two things that Western Virginia is not. In fact, all the states with the most widespread broadband coverage are either urban or flat or sometimes both. Feinman says if Virginia hits its goal “we anticipate being the first large state to achieve universal coverage.” Virginia would certainly be the first, big or small, with a significant portion of the state in the mountains — not exactly an insignificant obstacle. That assumes, of course, we beat North Carolina, which is planning to spend $750 million on rural broadband).

More context: When Northam was running for governor, he said his model for rural broadband was Minnesota. The state originally set a goal of 2015 for universal coverage, then had to push that back to 2022. According to Broadbandnow Research, Minnesota still isn't there. It puts Minnesota at 89.6% with Virginia at 83.4%. West Virginia, whose topography would match that of much of Southwest Virginia, is at 69.2%. (Alaska comes in last at 60.8%.)

Northam initially set a goal of 2022 for universal coverage, as well, although that quickly proved too ambitious and 2028 became the new target. Now, with this American Rescue Plan money, the state might be able to finish by 2024 — four years ahead of schedule.

There are still many details to be worked out — what construction project has ever been completed without delays? One big question remains affordability — if rural residents wind up paying appreciably more than their urban counterparts, well, that's better than no internet at all, but still not exactly a bargain.

In any case, it's fashionable to blame government for all the things it doesn't do, or doesn't do very well. Here's something where government is actually on the verge of fixing a problem that the free market couldn't.

—The Roanoke Times


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