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Chiazor: The Hottest Topic in 2021: Keeping People Connected

Chiazor: The Hottest Topic in 2021: Keeping People Connected

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Nneka Chiazor

Nneka Chiazor

Last year brought increased visibility to the importance of broadband. With many Virginians teleworking, students distance learning, and businesses trying to stay afloat by offering services online, broadband was at the epicenter of how we managed our “new normal.”

As we start the first chapter of 2021, I have no doubt that keeping people connected in the truest sense will remain a hot topic especially when it comes to broadband and internet connectivity, as was indicated in the recent op-ed by Tim Dempsey. The fact is, it’s a complex issue with two very important yet different components intertwined in the conversation: accessibility and affordability.

At Cox, we are committed to keeping people, businesses and communities connected; in Roanoke, where Cox has been serving residents for more than 40 years, we continue to work diligently to develop solutions to address both accessibility and affordability.

Currently, all residents living within Roanoke City limits can access broadband through Cox. Furthermore, we have income-based programs that connect families to broadband for a fraction of the cost of the average monthly cell phone, water, or energy bill. And for those families with students at home, there’s even an option to receive broadband service at no cost to the family through a partnership with Roanoke City Public Schools; the more than 700 families connected can confirm you can’t get more affordable than that.

We do recognize, however, that there are residents who don’t have access to our broadband service in more rural areas of Roanoke County. It’s not that we don’t want to extend our network to these unserved areas, but as Amy Friedenberger accurately reported previously, “It’s more expensive to connect homes in rural areas that are more spread out or located on challenging terrain…”

To overcome these challenges, we look for win-win solutions not to cover our ongoing costs, but to help cover the one-time, low-return engineering and construction costs of these projects. Cox’s private investment picks up the rest – the long-term operation, maintenance, and upgrades of the network that come with a hefty price tag.

For example, we successfully partnered with Roanoke County on a construction project that, when completed, will connect 75 homes to our broadband network. We also have the potential of reaching 300 more residents pending results of a recent VATI (Virginia Telecommunications Initiative) grant application. Regardless of the outcome from the grant cycle, we’ll continue to look for public-private partnership opportunities to reach the unserved.

Simply put, building, operating, and maintaining a fiber-based network is a capital-intensive business. Perhaps that’s why, as Ms. Friedenberger stated, the RVBA, “whose territory doesn’t include a lot of unserved areas,” opted not to build to unserved homes in Roanoke and instead chose the easier route — using taxpayer dollars to duplicate networks already built by private broadband providers.

Contrary to what the Roanoke Times chooses to report, there’s no lack of commitment from the private sector and we remain focused on closing the digital divide. Cox, a private family-owned company (not an investor-owned business as Mr. Dempsey misrepresented), has invested more than $2.2 billion in private funding just in Virginia over the past decade to build, maintain, and upgrade our fiber-based network to meet customer needs today and into the future. In fact, our future investments are focused on brining 10 gigabit broadband speeds to every home in our service area.

Closing the digital divide is something we recognize we can’t solve on our own. We’ll continue to look for partnerships that will bring connectivity to all residents in our service area and we’ll advocate for an equitable use of federal and state grant funding to make that happen. We need to work collaboratively with our localities to build out the infrastructure necessary to connect all residents in Virginia. As we work toward this shared goal, I hope the Roanoke Times will choose to highlight successes along the way such as private sector investments and expanded affordability programs instead of continuing to rely on outdated narratives that try to paint our industry as a barrier to connectivity.

It’s true what Sen. Jennifer Boysko, chair of Virginia’s Broadband Advisory Council, stated in her opinion editorial that ran in The Roanoke Times on Nov. 4, 2020, “broadband is a priority in Virginia.” Regardless of how The Roanoke Times chooses to cover it, Cox is committed to that priority.

Chiazor is vice president for government and public affairs of Cox Virginia.

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