We can get bet­ter broad­band in Vir­ginia

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS -

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.

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