By Jennifer Woofter
Woofter is a sustainability consultant and the Democratic candidate for the 22nd District House of Delegates that covers parts of Bedford County, Campbell County, Lynchburg and Franklin County.
Long before I considered a run for the House of Delegates, I heard concerns about the lack of high-speed internet in our rural communities. On a recent drive from Smith Mountain Lake to Lynchburg, cutting through the heart of the 22nd District, I had the chance to see for myself that broadband internet access is still a pipe dream for too many in our community.
While driving along mostly major roads, we used a free app called TestIT to check broadband service every few miles. Stopping near homes, churches, businesses, and farms, we found that 75 percent of the time the service did not meet the national standard for broadband. Service was only sufficient to run a business, apply for a job, or enjoy a streamed video three times out of 12 attempts.
Bedford County, where we conducted a majority of the tests, has recently rolled out an ambitious plan to bring broadband to its rural residents. This plan is rightfully touted as a model for other rural communities. But it’s almost 2020 — and thousands more across the region are left to wonder: How long until we’re a priority, too?
A reading of my opponent Del. Kathy Byron’s recent op-ed in The News & Advance, touting her positions on the Broadband Advisory Council and Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission should worry rather than hearten anyone hoping for growth in high-speed internet access any time soon.
Her message to most of our district: Keep waiting.
Byron has been a member of the Broadband Advisory Council since 2010. She’s been at the legislature since 1998. She’s had decades to lead, but here we are in 2019 with vast swaths of our rural communities lacking high-speed internet.
Sure, there are improvements in the works. But, come on — is my opponent really holding herself up as a leader in this area?
I built my first website on a high-speed internet network as a freshman in college, 23 years ago. It was clear even back then that broadband was going to be a game-changer for families, for businesses, and for our public education system. Now, more than two decades later, our rural communities are still being promised that broadband is coming. They just need to be patient. And so the waiting game continues.
To get an idea of why broadband access is still out of reach, take a look at my opponent’s campaign contributions. Over her career, her second biggest donor is Verizon, a telecom company that has given her $43,100, including $3,500 this cycle. Her sixth highest donor is the Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association at $28,000, including $5,000 this cycle.
This information is all available online at the Virginia Public Access Project, a free tool that ensures transparency and accountability of our public officials. Of course, it’s hard to access without reliable high-speed internet.
Now, take a look at the Broadband Deployment Act that Del. Byron introduced to the General Assembly in 2017 at the behest of the telecommunications lobby. That bill would have limited the ability of municipalities to own and operate broadband networks, shifting control instead to companies like Comcast and Shentel. Localities across the region and legislators from both parties criticized the bill for limiting local options and flexibility. Even after legislators watered down the bill to irrelevancy, Byron continued to push for it.
People in the 22nd District deserve a delegate who is paying attention and making THEM a priority, not the highest bidder. We’re tired of hearing the same rhetoric and promises repeated year after year from a delegate who has had two decades on the job.
Del. Byron’s record on broadband is just one example of her taking the side of corporate interests over the needs of working families. We have pressing problems — wages that haven’t kept up with the cost of living, healthcare deductibles and co-pays that are spiraling out of control, and a lack of affordable childcare options. We can’t afford to wait any longer for a leader who fights for us.
That’s why I’m running. As a sustainability consultant, I’ve fought to find win-win solutions that drive economic growth and protect local communities, a skill set we need in a district as diverse as the 22nd.
We don’t send people to Richmond for good enough, pretty good, or fine. November is our chance to send that message. We need to do better, and we need to do better NOW.