Connecting Virginians to the 21st Century

It wasn’t that long ago that I can remember watching anxiously as the yellow AOL man trudged begrudgingly from left to right across the computer screen as the digital subscriber line, what we all know as DSL, connected me to the phenomenon that was the world-wide web. While the internet has been in existence for quite some time, it was just becoming widely commercially available in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. By my senior year in high school, the internet was being rapidly integrated into everyday life– Facebook launched shortly before my freshman year of college. At school, program suites, such as Blackboard and online databases like JSTOR (short for Journal Storage, founded 1995) were still in their nascent stages and relegated to the obscure realm of academia. Taking the internet’s technological evolution into perspective, it is clear today that the use of– and as a prerequisite, access to– the internet has become an integral part of our daily lives.

Today the internet serves as the primary medium through which we interact with the world around us. Education, business, healthcare and many other facets of society have increasingly integrated the use of high-speed broadband internet into their operating concepts. As such, access to high-speed broadband internet no longer remains a luxury, but instead is now an essential requirement. Far from the enhancement that the web brought to our lives a decade ago, without access to reliable and fast internet, you are now “out of the loops” in a world that is deeply interconnected and constantly evolving.

While wireless carriers such as AT&T and Verizon purport national coverage, 4G wireless connectivity has been replaced by LTE and Apple continues to pump out the latest version of their iPhone– the fact remains that there are still far too many Americans who lack access to adequate high speed internet. While this is a problem that tends to be concentrated on the socioeconomic strata and demographics most in need in our communities, it particularly effects those in less populated,  rural areas where private Internet Service Providers (ISP) have had less incentive to establish mature fiber-optic networks capable of providing next generation high speed broadband internet.

But we aren’t talking about excessive luxury or “nice-to-have” here, we are talking about providing essential services and investing in the future of our communities. The National Broadband Plan, released by the FCC in 2010, provides a comprehensive overview of initiatives the FCC and other federal agencies have set forth in an attempt to increase digital literacy and realize a future in which universal broadband access is a reality for all Americans.

Under the leadership of Governor Terry McAuliffe, the Commonwealth has also made significant gains in providing access to high speed internet available in the state’s schools. In partnership with EducationSuperHighway, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving internet access across the nation, the Governor’s office announced that 72 percent of Virginia’s schools met the minimum connectivity requirement of 100 kbs per student as specified by the FCC. This statistic is a drastic improvement from the 33 percent reported in the non-profits annual state of the states reported just two years earlier in 2014. Access within school systems is essential, but it isn’t the whole picture. As the education system increasingly integrates into online networks and resources, access to quality high-speed internet at home has become as important element to the whole family. Broadband is a requirement for homework, home business and correspondence. Increasingly, people can keep in contact with their healthcare providers from home via web portals. In the “internet of things” the web is increasingly connecting people, their homes and appliances, with the outside world. Just a few of the obvious benefits to these developments here include increased energy efficiency and home security. As exciting as this future sounds, it is a future that can only be realized in a state that enables that tomorrow, today through the investment in the required infrastructure and resources.

While we can’t force the hand of private entities to provide services to rural areas, other options do exist. Municipalities have been trying for several years to bridge the gap within their communities where citizens are unserved or are offered low-quality services as unreasonable costs. The National Broadband Plan specifically recommended that Congress should make clear that local governments can build broadband networks. Federal legislation, like the Broadband Conduit Act of 2015 (HR 3805), was introduced with the intent of building new infrastructure, such as future road networks designed to readily incorporate new fiber optic cable lines without the need for disruptive additional digging. Unfortunately, there are also initiatives at the state level that create barriers to bridging the gap in connectivity across our communities.

The Virginia Broadband Deployment Act (HB 2108), currently on Governor McAuliffe’s desk after passing the Commonwealth’s House and Senate represents one such barrier, preventing public entities from providing broadband services in unserved areas. The bill, introduced by Lynchburg Republican Kathy Byron creates a list of requirements required to be met by any locality that intends to own and operate a broadband or internet communications system3. In a clear move to insulate private interests, the bill mandates imputed private sector costs to any municipality-led effort, which would deter many local entities from offering broadband services to their citizens at reasonable costs1. Imputed private-sector costs is analogous to price-fixing and can be best understood by a portion of the bill itself. Section 56-484.30 subdivision 2.a states:

“The locality or its affiliate shall include within its rates an amount equal to all taxes, fees, and other assessments that would be applicable to a similarly situated private provider of the same communications services, including federal, state, and local taxes; franchise fees; permit fees; pole attachment fees; and any similar fees.”

It is worth noting that the Virginia Association of Counties, has stated that this legislation is not conducive to establishing successful partnerships between private ISPs and municipally run efforts3. The bill was introduced by Delegate Byron but engineered by the Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association, allows ISPs to have their cake and eat it too. By effectively raising the barrier to entry, ISP’s are not required to compete with municipalities who attempt to provide services on their own initiative while simultaneously insulating themselves from the costs of providing essential services to citizens in unserved areas. Section 56-484.30 subdivision 2.b states goes further to ward of potential competition:

“The locality or its affiliate shall not price any of its communications services at a level that is less than the sum of:(i) the actual direct costs of providing the service; (ii) the actual indirect costs of providing the service; and (iii) the amount determined under subdivision 2a.”

While there is an aversion to government led initiatives in the services sector, there are success stories of municipalities partnering with service providers to connect citizens. The Utopia Regional Fiber Consortium of Bristol, Virginia certainly has its flaws, but provides proof that locality-ran efforts in providing broadband services to constituents is a distinct possibility.

It is difficult to quantify the benefits of providing connectivity in a world where the internet touches almost every facet of our daily lives. Today, people use the internet to keep in touch with relatives, medical providers, engage in distance learning and to run businesses. Investing in the infrastructure required for expansion of these services– particularly into areas currently unserved by independent providers– is an investment in the productivity of our people and our communities. Where ISP’s won’t provide services due to limited potential of short-term profits, the least we should expect our state’s elected representatives to do is get out of the way of locality-run efforts to bridge the gap in providing essential services to our citizens. Sadly, given some of the recent actions by some of our elected representatives– particularly the ones bankrolled by these ISPs– it seems that private interests take a front seat to constituent needs. Investing in Virginia’s future prosperity should not be tied so closely to the bottom line of shareholders and business modeling should not be the sole litmus test on whether residents of Virginia receive access to broadband services in an age where being connected is everything.

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