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Editorial: Which candidate is best on rural broadband?

Editorial: Which candidate is best on rural broadband?

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In the movie “Moneyball” about the economics of modern baseball, there’s a scene where Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, is trying to get his scouts to think differently about the players they’re evaluating.

“Let me understand this,” says one crusty old scout. “At first base you want a guy who’s been cut from half of the minor league teams in the country due to irreparable nerve damage?”

“He can’t hit and he can’t field,” replies Beane (played by Brad Pitt), “but what can he do?”

The scouts concede that Scott Hatteberg does have an unusual knack for drawing walks.

“He gets on base a lot, Rocco,” Beane says. “Do I care if it’s a walk or a hit?”

At that point, Beane turns to his right-hand man, a Yale-educated economist named Peter Brand, who has some unconventional ideas about baseball statistics. “You do not,” Brand says simply.

That scene — which summed up the new way of thinking that Beane helped introduce to baseball — comes to mind as we turn our attention to the competing plans that our two major party candidates for governor have for extending broadband Internet to rural Virginia.

Democrat Ralph Northam has one way. Republican Ed Gillespie has another. As far as that one issue is concerned, should you care which one gets elected governor?

“You do not.”

The choice of the next governor may matter to you for other reasons. Perhaps you think Northam’s plan to make community college free for certain qualifying students is the best way to create a skilled workforce. Perhaps you think Gillespie’s plan to cut taxes is the best way to grow the economy. Perhaps you prefer one or the other based on something else — abortion, guns, the usual list of issues. But rural broadband? The technical details between the two candidates’ plans probably aren’t worth being the deciding factor. One’s a walk, the other’s a hit, but both get us on base. And that’s a good thing.

The most important news here is that both candidates say they see a state role in extending broadband to rural Virginia. The times really are a-changing: This is the first governor’s race where broadband has been a big enough issue for candidates to issue policy papers on the subject.

Northam gets credit for paying attention to rural Virginia, something Democrats tend not to do these days. Gillespie gets credit for accepting that government has to play a role — and spend some money — instead of simply letting the free market take care of things. That’s because two realities are plain now: First, the modern economy requires high-speed Internet connections for just about every kind of business. Second, the free market isn’t able to extend broadband to many rural communities. Vast swaths of rural Virginia have Internet speeds that creep along at levels not even seen in some Third World countries.

That has put some rural Republicans in a philosophical bind: Ideology would say tough luck; the free market has spoken. Practicality would say government needs to step in and help localities — localities that just happen to vote overwhelmingly Republican. We saw that split on display during the recent General Assembly session where Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford County, sponsored a bill that would have made it nearly impossible for localities to create their own broadband solutions — even though much of her rural district has Internet speeds slower than Sri Lanka.

Fortunately, Gillespie has come down on the practical side, which means both the Republican nominee and the Democratic nominee are in favor of the state doing something. They just disagree — slightly — over what that something is.

First, we should give credit where credit is due: It’s our current governor, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who took the first action to have the state help private carriers extend broadband into rural locations they might not otherwise have invested in. He created the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative and proposed $2.5 million a year in funding — which the General Assembly trimmed to $1 million. The program is set up to provide “gap funding” — meaning it’s “last dollar” funding” to supplement what localities and private carriers have offered up. In the program’s first year, requests were quadruple what was available, which gives you some send of the demand. In March 2017, the administration awarded five grants — to projects in Albemarle, Augusta, Bland, Gloucester and Greensville counties. The program seems similar to a highly-regarded initiative in Minnesota, except that Minnesota has put up $35 million a year for rural broadband, not $1 million. Minnesota also has set an official goal of getting everyone on broadband by 2022.

Both Northam and Gillespie would expand and accelerate that program, although neither has a dollar figure to propose yet. Gillespie specifically suggests using bonds to raise funds for the program (something Northam doesn’t mention). Gillespie also wants to use a loan fund, and says he’ll encourage private business to help raise money for it. That probably sheds some light on the philosophical differences between Democrats and Republicans, but the bottom line seems pretty much the same.

Both also say they want to centralize planning for rural broadband; they’d just do it in different places on the state’s organizational chart. Right now, there are broadband initiatives scattered across state government and related entities such as the tobacco commission. Northam would put a single Cabinet secretary in charge; Gillespie says that creates a “silo” and would task both the Secretary of Technology and Secretary of Commerce and Trade with different duties on rural broadband.

Gillespie’s plan has a lot more details, such as using state assets like community colleges for relay towers and Virginia Department of Transportation rights-of-way for laying fiber. All this sounds very similar to an idea first advanced nearly two decades ago by Democrat Mark Warner, when he was running for governor back in 2001.

Northam’s broadband plan is more conceptual, but specifically singles out Minnesota as a model to emulate. That fits the general pattern on other issues: Gillespie puts out lots of details; Northam stresses broad themes.

Do those differences matter on rural broadband? Maybe to somebody, but they also seem statistically insignificant. Whether it’s Gillespie’s plan or Northam’s, whether it’s a walk or a hit, we’ll be happy to cheer rural Virginia getting on base with broadband.

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