Daily Press (Sunday)

Don’t foist broadband costs on Virginia’s electric co-ops

- By Cliff Williamson Guest columnist Cliff Williamson is executive director of the Virginia Agribusine­ss Council.

During this General Assembly session, like many of those in recent memory, the topic of broadband expansion has been front and center, justifiabl­y so. However, this session is different from those of previous years in that this year some are trying to couple the expansion of broadband to a significan­t hike in electrical rates, specifical­ly in our rural and struggling communitie­s.

Disappoint­ingly, this is being done as millions of dollars’ worth of government money has already been spent without so much as an inch of broadband having been connected. I will share some specific cases with you today.

Let me begin by sharing that the Virginia Agribusine­ss Council supports the expansion of broadband. We have worked for years at both the federal and state level to secure the funding we have at our disposal.

Additional­ly, the council has clear policy from our farmer and agribusine­ss members where it concerns public utilities, to oppose any policy that will increase user fees. We cannot support the broadband industry’s current proposal that straps their expenses to the back of Virginia’s electric cooperativ­es, the cost of which will have nowhere to go other than trickle down to ratepayers — ratepayers who may never even choose to use, or gain access to, the connectivi­ty that they will have to pay for.

Here’s the crux of the problem that leads us to where we are today. Electric utility poles are meant to carry electricit­y to customers. They clearly succeed at that task. Some broadband providers have underbid the grants they received, and their preference is that electric co-ops subsidize their miscalcula­tions by contributi­ng to their projects. They now want the General Assembly to mandate this support at the cost of raising electric rates, all under someone else’s name.

Virginia’s electric co-ops have long been a backbone of many of our rural communitie­s, including my hometown’s Rappahanno­ck Electric Cooperativ­e. They are member-owned, not-forprofit electric utilities focused on keeping the heat flowing and the lights glowing. There is little to no margin to absorb any unnecessar­y infrastruc­ture replacemen­ts without raising electric rates.

As an example, one of the for-profit ventures supporting this legislatio­n has successful­ly won multi-million-dollar contracts to install broadband for communitie­s across the commonweal­th. It has been awarded more than $180 million in grants, and in some localities, has already used nearly a third of the taxpayer money it was given. One would think that in a locality such as Culpeper County, where it was awarded nearly $9 million dollars and has already billed nearly $3 million in expenses, that roughly 33% of the miles contracted to complete would be done, right? Or maybe that the backbone would be done?

Would you be surprised to know that in my very own hometown of Culpeper County, despite the millions in billings, not one piece of broadband fiber has been laid according to public data available on the Virginia Telecommun­ication Initiative (VATI) website, leaving my family’s farm without this critical resource. We have anxiously anticipate­d the accessibil­ity and opportunit­y that comes from consistent, highspeed connectivi­ty, a service that is still unattainab­le for the three generation­s living and working there.

What the legislatio­n before the General Assembly mandates is that cooperativ­es automatica­lly absorb the cost of replacing poles that will carry heavy broadband equipment. We can do better, and we must do better to protect ratepayers from an unsupporte­d bail out of internet service providers.

Rural Virginia deserves the same treatment as the rest of the commonweal­th – affordable electricit­y AND reliable broadband connectivi­ty. A vote for House Bill 800 and Senate Bill 713 is a vote to raise electric rates with no guarantee of broadband connectivi­ty. I would encourage our elected leaders to oppose both pieces of legislatio­n.

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