The hamlet of Head Waters in Highland County is rated between “unserved” and “underserved” for high-speed internet access. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Writing this column in a Richmond suburb, I expect instant responses to data inquiries from across the Internet. And, far more often than not, I get them.
Fiber-optic digital access (which ain’t cheap) also allows me to stream movies, shop the virtual marketplace, conduct business videoconferences and correspond at light speed with anyone in the world via email or social media.
By the time you read this, I will have used this fast connection to communicate with sources whom I have interviewed for this piece, downloaded all sorts of data and collaborated with The Virginia Mercury’s editors to get it ready for your consumption.
After a while, you take the technology as much for granted as the sunrise. I shrink into a near panic when a storm or technical failure causes an outage.
In the leafy subdivisions that cover the landscape for miles and miles in all directions around Virginia’s largest cities, it’s easy to forget that hundreds of thousands of fellow Virginians still rely on a phone line and endure this hissy-screechy sound every time they log in.
Rural Virginians have a legitimate beef.
Broadband internet isn’t the only area where the commonwealth’s countryside gets the shaft. It’s been a rough row to hoe in most every regard these past few decades outside the Old Dominion’s cozy suburbs.
Counties, towns and small cities once sustained by tobacco growing and processing, furniture and textile manufacturing and coal mining have atrophied to a shell of their former selves as each of those was slammed by public health concerns, global trade deals and the inconvenient truth about climate change.
As those industries and jobs that were once Virginia’s economic backbone disappeared, so did the population base of those localities. Boarded up factories sit idle. Property values decline with population losses. And because of it, those areas see their voice in federal and state government diminish with each new decennial reapportionment. And there’s the heartbreak of seeing young people raised in those places grow up, then put down stakes elsewhere — often in those tony suburbs near Washington, D.C., or Richmond or in Hampton Roads and the Peninsula. Those left behind try to figure out a new value proposition around which to revive and rebrand their once-thriving manufacturing communities.
That’s tough to do in a knowledge-based, data-driven service economy without the near-universal availability or blinding-fast digital networks that the state’s richer regions enjoy.
Research by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service shows the extent of the digital disconnect in Virginia. Plotted on a locality-by-locality map of Virginia, those with the most abundant access to high-speed Internet connections including fiber optic lines, cable or DSL show up in ever-darkening shades from the least (tan) to the most (burnt umber). Those where fewer than half of the households have such access show up as beige. This interactive image shows enormous pale-shaded digital deserts in rural areas, especially the Southside and Southwest Virginia regions.
Not only does the scarcity of broadband disadvantage existing, emerging and prospective traditional businesses in rural areas, it significantly disadvantages those who had to make the shift from working or learning in offices and classrooms to doing the same remotely from home at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Hamilton Lombard, a demographer at the Cooper Center, authored a January 2019 report on teleworking that, as fate would have it, was perfectly timed if not immediately prescient. In it, Lombard asserts that telecommuting may become “Virginia’s biggest demographic trend in the 2020s.” This color-keyed map allows a user to see how dramatically working from home increased from just a smattering of Virginia cities and counties to large, contiguous blocs of them over the first 18 years of the 21st century.
Not surprisingly, Lombard found that teleworkers are concentrated in metro areas such as Northern Virginia and Charlottesville that are rich with white-collar employment. More surprising, however, was this:
“(I)t is the exurban and rural counties that have the highest rates of telecommuting in Virginia despite how limited internet access remains in much of rural Virginia (in 2015 the FCC estimated that nearly two-thirds of rural Virginians were unable to receive high speed internet service).”
The demand and desire are there. Imagine if those home-based workers had the same access to blinding-fast Internet that I have in Henrico County.
Communications giants like Verizon, Cox and Comcast are happy to wire up the affluent suburbs where there’s lots of profit to be reaped in a fairly compact service area.
As they’d say in duck-hunting country where I grew up, it’s like shooting over a baited field. (Hint: It’s illegal; don’t do it.)
The return on investment isn’t so alluring, however, when the population becomes sparser, the landscape more open, and a lot more wire is needed to reach fewer customers.
So you can see why Virginians who don’t have a Starbucks at every stoplight, Teslas in school carpool lanes and 5G smartphones in their pockets might be a tad fed up with the perpetual Catch-22 that seems always to hold them back.
Del. Chris Hurst does. He says that if Big Telecom isn’t willing to extend affordable high-speed digital service into underserved areas, then it’s time for government to step in and level the playing field.
“It’s exactly like rural electrification. Everybody should have it even if it’s not economically viable for the capital costs to do it,” said Hurst, whose House district includes parts of Roanoke and Montgomery counties, the westernmost district in Virginia represented by a Democrat. “If it’s not economically viable, then the state and federal — somebody in government — should pay that cost to bring high-speed Internet to that individual, wherever they live.”
“We’ve got a lot of work left to do. We’ve still got about 400,000 people without broadband speeds,” said Hurst, who grew up in suburban Philadelphia but has learned the needs of flyover country as an apprentice television newsman, first in eastern Washington, and then Roanoke, where he worked for WDBJ-TV.
With the nation once more focused on rebuilding its mid-20th century infrastructure, he argues, what better time than now for the government to make a sweeping investment in super-fast telecommunication.
He’s hardly the first politico to argue for universal broadband. Sen. Mark Warner, who made his fortune as an early investor in cellular communications, was the first to appeal to rural voters in his successful 2001 gubernatorial campaign with a promise to foster broadband expansion in their areas.
Nonprofits, too, got into the act in Virginia and elsewhere. Broadband for America, which includes major industry players such as AT&T, Comcast, Cox and others, made a specific push in Virginia nearly a dozen years ago.
But progress has crept along, throttling the ability of an enormous rural swath of Virginia to compete for jobs and opportunity; to reverse its losses; and to give kids who grow up there a reason to come home.
Broadband presents a workable opportunity for the commonwealth to act like a commonwealth, to live up to the meaning of the term and, at last, lift up rural Virginia and those who call it home.
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