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Michael Deal column: How the pandemic shined a spotlight on a crisis in broadband access and affordability
Dead Zones

Michael Deal column: How the pandemic shined a spotlight on a crisis in broadband access and affordability

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Rural Broadband

In late August, Comcast cable was coiled by an electricity pole on Rhodes Lane in rural Chesterfield County.

“When [the pandemic] hit us, it was like a freight train ... We didn’t even know what the questions were to provide answers to parents who were panicking,” explained Frances Wilson, the director of technology for Lunenburg County Public Schools. “Hot spots were provided in churches, libraries, park areas, and fire and rescue departments across the county ... it was a team initiative, that’s for sure.”

Middlesex County Public Schools Superintendent Pete Gretz told a similar story. “We set up ‘Wireless on Wheels’ units and procured LTE-enabled Chromebooks and iPads.” He is concerned, however, that limited internet service not only affects students, but also will fuel racial discontent, restrict access to telehealth services, limit remote work opportunities and negatively impact small businesses. “If long-term broadband solutions aren’t found soon, counties like ours will have a hard time attracting families to move here or keep others from moving away,” Gretz said.

One-third of Virginia’s families in rural areas lack broadband access. Since online learning became the norm during this pandemic, many Virginia students and their parents have been forced to drive to a library or church parking lot to access a hot spot so the children could do their homework. An estimated 200,000 K-12 students and 60,000 college students lack access to high-speed internet.

“Because we’re so sparsely populated, the in-the-ground fiber is too expensive. The free market knows that, and out here we only have one fiber provider (Atlantic Broadband), so there’s no competition,” explained John Koontz, chairman of the Middlesex County Broadband Authority. “The large telecoms have neither the motivation nor the mandate to address the public service needs of our community.”

Less costly and more sustainable local broadband authority and co-op alternatives exist, but telecom industry campaign contributions and lobbying serve to limit competition and influence a regulatory environment in Virginia — one of the three most onerous in the country, according to a BroadbandNow report. States without legislative roadblocks to municipal broadband tend to have lower-priced internet services on average, and those services are available to more people than in states with barriers, according to a 2020 study.

The telecoms’ monopoly position limits local alternatives’ access to funding to reach families that the telecoms have no financial incentive to serve. Kevin Gentry, executive director of the Middlesex County Broadband Authority and county IT director, explained how the local broadband proposal to the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI) was restricted by a 10% rule favoring the incumbent internet provider. This rule says that no grant can overlap by more than 10% the geographic service area covered by an existing provider, even if the applicant wanted to offer far superior broadband speeds. Gentry said that “the [telecoms] went into areas where the low-hanging fruit was, and then just left these huge broadband deserts.”

With more than 630 lobbyists nationwide, the telecom industry spent more than $100 million in 2019 to advance its business interests. In Virginia, the telecom industry counts among the largest campaign donors, totaling nearly $8 million in the 2018-19 electoral cycle. This largesse certainly facilitated getting a number of its representatives placed on the state’s Broadband Advisory Council, which oversees grant application reviews. Virginia is one of 19 states with laws designed to shield the biggest internet service providers from competition.

Legislation banning campaign contributions by telecoms (and other public service corporations like Dominion Energy) — introduced by Del. Ibraheem Samirah, D-Fairfax, and state Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City — did not get a vote in the House of Delegates. The Virginia Senate voted the bill down 10-6, the same result as this past year. Senators who voted against the bill collectively received $60,000 in campaign contributions from the major telecoms during the 2018-19 electoral cycle, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Samirah said “the bill would have gone a long way to remove the harmful influence of public service telecoms, open up competition by leveling the playing field for local broadband authorities, and promote consideration of lower cost options.”

For rural counties like Middlesex and Lunenburg, the pandemic has focused attention on dead zones and the pressing need to address remote internet learning for students. Once in-person classes resume, rural counties’ long-term broadband access and affordability needs will remain. Officials have placed broadband at the top of their limited budgets, but recognize there are no easy answers. Given that the major telecoms lack a financial incentive to serve many in the community, county officials find it objectionable when politicians are influenced to write the rules to favor the incumbents, and preclude more cost-effective and sustainable alternatives.

Michael Deal is a freelance journalist and podcaster (Citizen Reformers). He lives in Vienna. Contact him at: dealjm@gmail.com

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