Nearly six months into the coronavirus pandemic, many children are getting an education at home or doing their homework in a school parking lot where there is an internet connection. Adults are working at their computers from their kitchen tables or outside of a library.
About 600,000 Virginians, mostly in Southwest, Southside and the Tidewater areas, lack access to broadband. Even where some theoretically have access to it, they can’t afford it. And Virginia doesn’t currently have a plan to address affordability.
“The affordability problem remains out there, and it’s significant,” Evan Feinman, the governor’s chief broadband adviser, told the Virginia Broadband Advisory Council last week. “It is something we’re going to need to address if we’re going to truly claim to have addressed the digital divide.”
Virginia has mainly focused on laying the infrastructure necessary to connect homes and businesses to broadband. The Virginia Telecommunications Initiative is one of the primary mechanisms the commonwealth uses to reach areas where there is no broadband.
The state created the program in 2016 to provide grants for last-mile broadband infrastructure, which is the part of the network that connects individual homes and businesses to the broader network. The program requires funded projects to be public-private partnerships, with a local government partnering with a private sector internet service provider to bring service to that community.
Since the program started, it has awarded $25 million to 30 localities, connecting about 53,000 homes, businesses and community institutions. Funding has increased from $1 million in 2017 to $50 million this year. During this funding cycle, the program received grant requests totaling $105 million.
Most of Virginia’s internet infrastructure is operated by the private sector, and for private telecommunication companies building out broadband, that means they need to make decisions about where to expand based on their bottom lines. It’s more expensive to connect homes in rural areas that are more spread out or located on challenging terrain, so the incentive sometimes isn’t there for the private companies to serve those homes.
Local governments have established municipal broadband authorities to acknowledge the role they play in economic development and in ensuring all of their residents have access to affordable, high-speed internet. There are 27 municipal broadband authorities in Virginia, with the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority being one of the more well-established ones. It’s a registered internet service provider and has built more than 100 miles of fiber backbone and is moving into residential service.
“We are public stewards,” Frank Smith, president and CEO of the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority, told the broadband council.
The broadband council considered a proposal to allow the municipal authorities to apply for VATI grants without a private sector partner, meaning the authorities would serve as the internet service provider on the application rather than a company like Cox or Shentel. The idea set off a debate about access and affordability and whether high-speed internet is truly accessible when people can’t afford the monthly bill.
The General Assembly considered the measure during the recent special session, but the proposal got reworked a few times after telecommunication companies lobbied against it. It was ultimately punted to the broadband council.
The broadband council considered three options: leave the VATI program as it is; allow broadband authorities to compete for the grant money; or create a one-year pilot program to see what the interest is among the authorities.
“Let all boats share the tide,” said Smith, who advocated for the authority to compete for grants.
The broadband council is backing a one-year pilot, which would allow the authorities to receive no more than 10% of the budgeted grant money. The authorities would compete for the funds along with the other applicants. Feinman believes there are only about four broadband authorities experienced enough to submit an application. The General Assembly would have to authorize this pilot when it meets next year.
“Let’s open up the competition,” said Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, who thought the pilot was unnecessary. “If the current private-public partnerships feel threatened by this, then that’s because competition is a good thing.”
Feinman said the Northam administration does not have a position on the issue.
Representatives from the telecommunications industry were comfortable with the pilot program. Ray Lamura, who sits on the council and is president of the Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association, said VATI should continue to prioritize unserved areas. The association is the lobbying arm of telecommunication companies like Cox, Comcast and Shentel.
“The priority of the unserved is truly critical and has been the focus of what VATI has been about and what the legislature is about and what we’re trying to achieve as a commonwealth to get all connected,” Lamura said.
This means the grant money can’t be used for projects to improve the quality of existing internet services. That limits the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority, whose territory doesn’t include a lot of unserved areas.
Michael McEvoy, chairman of the Roanoke authority’s board of directors, said his wife is a teacher, and she tells him about students in the city struggling to learn because they have slow internet or their family can’t afford internet. He said municipal authorities can provide solutions to these problems.
“Why not look at all of the tools that are available, why limit it to just incumbent providers, who, frankly, aren’t doing the job, they haven’t been providing the services, because if they had we wouldn’t be here today talking about the need to fund these projects,” he told the broadband council.
When successful, publicly owned municipal broadband networks can create affordable services for neighborhoods or entire municipalities. However, local budget constraints and political resistance makes such ventures across the country rare.
Feinman suggested to the broadband council that any efforts to address internet affordability should be done through a new program. He acknowledged municipal authorities can have a useful role to play in addressing that problem.
“As we consider approaches to address the affordability side of the equation, which I and everybody on the governor’s team supports, we want to remember that VATI is really a tool that’s been developed over many years to solve the access problem, not the affordability problem,” Feinman said.
Lawmakers in Western Virginia anticipate that broadband will be a big topic during the upcoming General Assembly session, which is scheduled to begin Jan. 13.
Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt, said he’s interested in proposing that electronic gaming machines that are slated to be banned in June continue to operate along the Interstate 81 corridor, with the tax revenue going to support broadband expansion in Western Virginia.
The devices, which resemble slot machines, have sparked controversy because they had eluded the state’s prohibition on gambling. The legislature was poised to ban them this year, but Gov. Ralph Northam set up a plan to keep them operating so revenue could go toward the COVID-19 relief fund. Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, and Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, who lead the legislature’s budget-writing committees, both have maintained their positions that they want the machines banned by the June deadline.
Del. Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke County, supports the idea of letting the municipal authorities compete for state grant money to improve broadband coverage. He said affordability should be a goal the commonwealth is working toward.
“I think affordability is part of the package,” McNamara said. “I think anything we can do from a government perspective to encourage affordable broadband is a good thing.”