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Virginia takes a big step on rural broadband

Published by The Franklin News Post on June 12, 2019

Technology was supposed to bring about “the death of distance” and allow people to work anywhere they wanted to live. Instead, just the opposite has happened. A “great divergence” — as some economists call it —is piling jobs upon jobs in certain high-tech capitals while leaving rural communities behind.

There are few things that both liberals and conservatives agree on but here’s one of them: To bring more economic growth to rural areas, we need to wire them Imagegen 300x182with broadband internet. Think of this as the modern-day equivalent of rural electrification. The Massachusetts technology company Akamai used to produce an annual report on internet speeds. It hasn’t done so since 2017 but here’s what that last report showed: Many of Virginia’s cities that year had internet speeds that zipped along at more than 20 megabits per second. Many parts of rural Virginia, though, had internet speeds that crept along in the single digits – slower than many countries in the developing world. If you want to be blunt about it, much of rural Virginia operates at Third World levels. This isn’t just a problem for technology companies or people who want to see the latest cat video; even your most traditional employer has a front office that probably has to do some work over the internet.

It’s hard to blame the telecom companies. They’re for-profit entities but that black ink starts turning into red ink if they have to lay miles and miles of fiber across rural America. That’s led even the most ardent free marketers to recognize that government needs to step in if rural America is going to have the infrastructure for a 21st century economy. In the 2017 governor’s race, both candidates were in favor of rural broadband, which meant it didn’t get much attention — there wasn’t much to debate. Ralph Northam’s specific goal was to get the entire state wired on broadband by 2022 — an ambitious goal that won’t be met. In reality, the whole state will never get wired 100 percent — there’s always that hunting cabin in the backwoods of Highland County that’s off the grid in lots of ways. State officials conclude a more realistic goal is 97 percent. To reach the final 3 percent, the cost doubles. Or, put another way, the state can cut the cost in half if aims for 97 percent.

The Federal Communications Commission says that right now 91.7 percent of Virginians have broadband access, so we’re really focused on that final 5.3 percent to get to 97 percent. Are we really that wired already? It’s unclear. “There is good reason to believe these numbers are exaggerated,” reads a recent state report on Virginia’s rural broadband plan. The FCC data is sometimes pretty vague because internet providers aren’t required to say who exactly has service and at what speeds — and they’re reluctant to provide them for competitive reasons. That’s created a conundrum: How can the state help expand rural broadband if it doesn’t know who has broadband and who doesn’t?

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