Episode 009: Virginia’s Rural Broadband Crisis — How the Pandemic Shined a Spotlight on Broadband Access and Affordability
This first appeared in an op-ed I wrote for the Richmond Times-DispatchSHOW NOTESSummary. For rural Virginia counties like Middlesex and Lunenburg, the pandemic has focused attention on dead zones and the pressing need to address remote internet learning for students. Once in-person classes resume, rural counties’ long-term broadband access and affordability needs will remain. This episode explores how the digital divide developed in rural Virginia and why the “band-aid” solutions devised during the pandemic aren’t sustainable. Telecom industry campaign contributions and lobbying serve to limit competition and influence a regulatory environment in Virginia which is one of the three most onerous in the country. County officials have placed broadband at the top of their limited budgets, but recognize there are no easy answers. Major telecoms lack a financial incentive to serve many in the community. County officials find it objectionable when politicians are influenced to write the rules to favor the incumbents and preclude more cost effective and sustainable alternatives.
Lunenburg Public School Students Accessing a Hotspot for Homework at Ledbetter Christian ChurchA third of Virginia's families in rural areas lack broadband access. Since online learning became the norm during this pandemic, many Virginia students and their parents have been forced to drive to a library or church parking lot to access a hotspot so they could do their homework. An estimated 200,000 K-12 students and 60,000 college studentslack access to high-speed internet.
Frances Wilson, Lunenburg County PUblic Schools Director of Technology
In Lunenburg County, as with most rural school districts in Virginia, Frances Wilson, the Director of Technology for Lunenburg County Public Schools, describes how “hotspots were provided in churches, libraries, park areas, and fire and rescue departments across the county...it was a team initiative, that’s for sure. It took everybody coming together and paying for hotspots either through CARES funding that went to localities or from their own pockets.”
Peter Gretz, Superintendent of Middlesex County Public Schools
Middlesex County Public Schools Superintendent Pete Gretz told a similar story. “We set up ‘Wireless on Wheels’ units with funding from Charlottesville-based Sun Tribe Solar, which runs renewable energy for the school district. We also procured LTE-enabled Chromebooks and iPads which essentially act as built-in hot spots using cellular networks.” He is concerned, however, that limited internet service not only affects students, but will also fuel racial discontent, restrict access to telehealth services, limit remote work opportunities, and negatively impact small businesses. “If long-term broadband solutions aren’t found soon, counties like ours will have a hard time attracting families to move here or keep others from moving away,” said Gretz.
John Koontz, Middlesex County Supervisor and Chairman of Broadband Authority with Governor Ralph Northam
“Because we're so sparsely populated, the in-the-ground fiber is too expensive. The free market knows that, and out here we only have one fiber provider (Atlantic Broadband), so there's no competition,” explained John Koontz, Chairman of the Middlesex County Broadband Authority. “The large telecoms have neither the motivation nor the mandate to address the public service needs of our community”.
The telecoms’ monopoly position limits local alternatives’ access to funding to reach families that the telecoms have no financial incentive to serve. Kevin Gentry, the Middlesex County IT Director,