There’s politics and there’s governance. The two are not the same.
In Virginia this year, our politics have been dominated by one embarrassment after another. Beyond the headlines, though, the work of government goes on. Some of the most important work of government often gets the least attention. We’re here today to change that.
One of our favorite topics, as regular readers know, is the fate of the rural economy in the information age. 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 with 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, not as fast as in South Korea which was blazing along at 28.6 mbps, but still higher than the national average in rest of the United States. 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? This is a problem that’s not as big as might seem. The lack of detailed maps really just matters along the edges. Everybody pretty much knows where the dead zones generally are.
The Commonwealth Connect report estimates that there are 660,000 homes and businesses that lack broadband — and lays out a 10-year plan on how to connect them. That would push Northam’s 2022 goal to 2028. The total cost is put at a staggering $1 billion, although here’s a good comparison: That’s less than half the cost of upgrading Interstate 81, so maybe it’s not so staggering, after all. The report projects that Virginia will pay for $320 million of that. The rest would come from a patchwork of other sources — the federal government, the tobacco commission and the telecoms themselves. Northam proposed this year the state spend $50 million on rural broadband. A more parsimonious General Assembly cut that to $15 million, although here’s a useful comparison: Until a few years ago, the state wasn’t spending anything on rural broadband. In 2017, under Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Virginia spent its first $1 million. Last year, the state spent $4 million — so you can also say the legislature nearly quadrupled spending on rural broadband, although it will have to spend a lot more to meet that extended 2028 goal.
The legislature also quietly passed two bills that will help expand rural broadband. The most significant comes from Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County. His bill would allow utilities — such as Dominion Power and Appalachian Power — to install cables that would carry broadband into hard-to-reach rural areas. That’s a simple sentence for a complex set of regulations. It’s also kind of a big deal that reflects an unusual confluence of events. Last year, the General Assembly passed a controversial bill dealing with utility regulation. Public attention was naturally focused on electric rates, but behind it were some technical details dealing with “smart grid” technology. Layman’s version: Virginia’s utilities will soon start installing some whiz-bang technology to monitor stuff. If they’re laying cables anyway, why couldn’t they add a few more for rural broadband? That sure cuts down the up-front cost. That’s what O’Quinn’s bill enables. Some states are a long way from installing “smart grid” technology; some states already have. Virginia, conveniently, is just about to — which makes the timing serendipitous. For rural Virginia, O’Quinn’s bill might just be the most important one that got passed this year. The other bill, by Del. Bob Thomas, R-Fredericksburg, allows localities to create a “service district” that can contract with internet service providers to extend broadband into underserved areas. This is more complicated to explain, so we won’t. Suffice it to say, though, that this gives local governments a tool to take matters into their own hands.
No matter who’s up or down in Richmond, this is the stuff that really matters.