It’s a half-hour drive from downtown Fredericksburg, but rural residents of the Wilderness area are a world apart by computer.
For many of them, access to the internet is “a satellite dish on top of a silo in the middle of a cornfield,” said Kevin Marshall, who represents the Berkeley District on the Spotsylvania County Board of Supervisors. “If you’re within 100 feet, you get pretty good service.”
The technological gulf has been a hardship during a pandemic that has made high-speed internet a necessity for work and school, but Marshall helped open a virtual door for hundreds of families in northwestern Spotsylvania this spring through a partnership between the county and internet provider Data Stream Broadband, with some help from the federal government.
The Florida-based company mounted its microwave radio system on two towers at the Wilderness fire station that the county erected with more than $800,000 from the CARES Act, which Congress adopted more than a year ago in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Broadband service needs to be treated as a utility,” said Marshall, who acknowledged the county has a long way to go to extend high-speed internet across a county that covers more than 400 square miles of Virginia’s Piedmont.
“It’s not going to be a quick fix and an easy process,” he said. “It’s going to take some time.”
7th District issue
It’s also going to take money, but President Joe Biden’s evolving proposal to spend $100 billion on the challenge as part of his $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan is becoming a contentious issue in a Republican stronghold in the 7th Congressional District, with midterm elections looming next year as the first referendum on the new president’s plans to “build back better.”
Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, in her second term representing a swing district anchored in the Richmond suburbs, sees the president’s infrastructure plan as a way to invest in broadband networks that will generate good jobs, attract people to move to such places as rural Spotsylvania and even help farmers manage markets for their products.
“They are building blocks in our country’s recovery,” Spanberger said in an interview.
But state Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, a potential challenger for the 7th District seat next year, sees Biden’s proposal as “a big spend” that would duplicate work that Virginia and other federal programs are already doing to extend affordable, high-speed internet to households and businesses that don’t have it now.
“It’s nothing but growing big government,” he said in an interview.
Reeves, in his third term, says he’s not ready to look beyond critical state elections this year and the pending redrawing of congressional district boundaries, but he also doesn’t rule out a run for Congress in an effort to replace Spanberger.
“We are heavily contemplating it,” he said.
Spotsylvania, with the third-most votes in the 7th District after Henrico and Chesterfield counties, is a mixture of one-third suburbs and two-thirds countryside, so expanding opportunities for broadband could be a potent political issue in a growing county of more than 136,00 people, said Stephen Farnsworth, director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg.
“Broadband is one of the few issues that really has the potential to cross pretty rigid partisan lines in politics today,” said Farnsworth, a professor of political science and international affairs.
“To every business, to parents with kids, internet access will be a huge measure for improved opportunities and improved competition,” he said.
Spanberger has made the issue a priority in a series of emergency funding packages Congress has approved since the onset of the pandemic a year ago, beginning with the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, followed by the $908 billion Consolidated Appropriations Act in late December and the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act that Biden signed on March 11.
“I frequently hear from those in Spotsylvania and across our district about the challenges they face — both as far as access and cost — when it comes to reliable high-speed internet,” she said Friday.
“In Spotsylvania specifically, there are many households that are just out of reach of broadband internet service, and constraints in our current patchwork system do not provide a remedy for central Virginians who might find themselves in this position,” she said.
“Federal support means making sure homes, businesses and farms in this situation, like in Spotsylvania, have an opportunity to access high-speed internet that won’t cost thousands of dollars to go the extra mile — thousands of dollars that working families and small businesses can’t afford to spend.”
Reeves and Wittman
Reeves and Rep. Rob Wittman, R-1st, challenge the need to commit an additional $100 billion in the infrastructure bill on top of funding from previous packages and a pair of federal programs established under then-President Donald Trump at the Federal Communications Commission with almost $30 billion to spend over 10 years.
They contend that Biden’s plan would cut out private internet providers in favor of government-run programs, instead of the public-private partnerships that are required under the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative. It is using state and federal tax dollars to expand broadband access and make it more affordable.
“The best thing they can do is earmark [federal funding] for the state and let the state roll it out,” said Reeves, who has played a role in shaping Virginia policy on expanding broadband.
Evan Feinman, chief broadband adviser to Gov. Ralph Northam, hopes that will be the Biden administration’s approach to an estimated $222 million expected to come to Virginia under the American Rescue Plan, separately from the $3.8 billion the state will receive under the new law. Localities in Virginia would receive an additional $2.9 billion to spend over four years.
“That’s the money we’re waiting on with bated breath,” Feinman said. “We hope we’re going to be able to use that money to take a big swing at [broadband] access, as well as some work on the affordability issue.”
He said the state’s approach is more timely and cost-effective than the FCC programs that auction licenses to private internet providers. He said that approach avoids going through local governments or other public bodies to address service needs comprehensively rather than selectively.
“We think our model is better than the option the federal government has come up with,” he said.
Biden’s infrastructure plan isn’t specific yet, but its broad outline includes building broadband networks for universal coverage, with an emphasis on those “owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments, nonprofits, and cooperatives — providers with less pressure to turn profits and with a commitment to serving entire communities,” according to a written overview.
The plan also aims to spur competition among internet providers, partly by allowing municipal providers and rural electric cooperatives to compete “on an even playing field with private providers,” which would have to disclose their prices.
Wittman, representing a congressional district that includes Hanover and New Kent counties in the Richmond area, dislikes the administration’s proposed approach.
“Public entities are ill-equipped to efficiently develop, operate and maintain commercial broadband networks and would cost more and cover less than their private-sector counterparts,” he said.
Virginia is putting $100 million in state funding into the telecommunications initiative, which wants to achieve universal coverage before the 2028 goal that Northam has set. That would require an additional $300 million, which Feinman said does not reflect the undetermined cost of making internet service affordable for Virginians who have access but no way to pay for it.
The state would like the government to make permanent a $50 monthly subsidy provided under the Consolidated Appropriations Act to establish the Emergency Broadband Relief Program at the FCC. Biden supports short-term subsidies but does not think that “continually providing subsidies to cover the cost of overpriced internet service is the right long-term solution for consumers or taxpayers,” the overview states.
Spanberger said the currently approved emergency aid packages aim to address urgent needs during the pandemic, including about $7 billion in the rescue plan to reimburse schools and libraries for providing free broadband service in homes and the devices to use it.
“The rescue plan has been a response to the challenges on the ground,” she said. “The jobs plan is more forward-looking.”
Documenting the need
Spotsylvania officials say they’ve encountered “unintentional roadblocks” under the existing federal and state programs to qualify for grants under criteria that don’t reflect the county’s diversity.
The county received one grant from the state program to install fiber-optic cable along one rural road, but failed in the next application because of the high cost per home served.
“Finding a one-solution-meets-all approach is difficult for a county so extensive in land size,” spokeswoman Michelle McGinnis said.
Marshall, the supervisor who led the push for the partnership at the Wilderness fire station, said he looks for grant opportunities wherever he can find them.
“These grants have got to be easier to obtain,” he said.
McGinnis said Spotsylvania’s “greatest challenge” is documenting the need in unserved or underserved areas because of imprecise or misleading maps provided by competitive internet service providers.
Until the FCC defines broadband as a public utility, “there is little regulation as to how and when it gets expanded,” she said.
“There are valid arguments on both sides of the regulation of broadband services,” she said, “but until high speed broadband can be offered fairly and equitably to everyone, localities such as Spotsylvania County will continue to struggle to bring services to its residents that are both affordable and sustainable.”