More regulation of the industry needed to ensure affordable broadband for all

August 26, 2021 12:10 am

A Comcast truck outside the Virginia Capitol. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

By the Rev. Rick Willis

As a member of the Eastern Shore Chapter of Virginia Organizing and a 20-year resident of Chincoteague on the Eastern Shore, I am responding to Ned Oliver’s August 16 comprehensive article in the Mercury regarding the $700 million the General Assembly has budgeted for broadband in its recent special session.  It would be no exaggeration to say that the commonwealth, and the Eastern Shore specifically, have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to provide accessible, reliable and affordable broadband internet service to all Virginians, especially those of low and moderate incomes.

Here on the Shore, we have witnessed first-hand the inequities Mr. Oliver reported on. COVID-19 has disproportionately affected many residents of the Eastern Shore who are living at the margins of our common life. For students whose parents could afford it, reliable internet was available at home. For others less fortunate, learning took place in hotspots where students had to study in their cars in parking lots. Businesses also suffer by not having reliable and affordable internet. Again, it is the small and minority-owned businesses who suffer the most.

The Eastern Shore Chapter of Virginia Organizing and Citizens for a Better Easter Shore (CBES) are two citizen-focused organizations who are committed to the improvement of the quality of life for all residents of the Eastern Shore. Recently CBES and Virginia Organizing partnered to work toward the goal of ensuring that all our citizens have internet service which is affordable, reliable, and accessible.

“Internet is not a luxury, it is essential” has been our rallying cry given the inequitable impact of the cost, access to, and reliance on the various internet/broadband providers serving the Shore. Access to the internet is vital for educating our young people, promoting economic development, and access to healthcare. Virginia Organizing held a townhall meeting with state and local government officials, educators and school information officers, the broadband authority and private providers, as well as consumers to educate and inform our citizens of the difficulties with broadband on the Shore and to work toward a remedy. Partnering with CEBS, we have followed up with two more significant Zoom forums to continue this process and add the potential role our electric cooperative may have in an ultimate solution.

The Eastern Shore will receive $6.3 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding.  At the July 8 work session of the Accomack County Board of Supervisors, speaker after speaker implored these leaders to devote a sizeable portion of these funds to expand broadband. At the subsequent regular meeting of the board, expanding broadband was the top priority for the use of these funds. In addition to the ARPA funds, we need to ensure that the Eastern Shore receives an equitable slice of the state funding pie.

Yes, the dollars are there, but will there be an equitable distribution of these funds or will they go to the private internet providers who, according to Mr. Oliver’s article, will own the infrastructure they will create with these public funds?  Who and how will we ensure that rural, underserved areas like our beloved Eastern Shore don’t once again get the proverbial shaft when it comes to quality service for all? Among the glaring learnings from our research is that neither the private providers nor the authority has the best interests or the needs of consumers as a primary mission.  Perhaps an independent ombudsman should be established to help the consumer through the morass and complexities of internet services, fees and structures. We are trying to fill these voids.

One viable but difficult and complicated solution is to have a public broadband utility that is a partnership between our county governments, the Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority and the Accomack and Northampton Electric Cooperative. Other local governments and electric cooperatives around Virginia are experimenting with and developing pilot programs to build out broadband in their areas.

The telecommunications lobby has been very successful in preventing municipal-provided internet services and ensuring that public broadband authorities cannot set fees to compete with private carriers. Current providers like Spectrum and others are in existence to make a profit. Running fiber optic cable to remote and low-income households in large open areas is not profitable for the companies and not affordable by the residents. This has been true even of residents who form cost-sharing groups to spread expensive installation costs.

The Eastern Shore Chapter of Virginia Organizing and Citizens for A Better Eastern Shore are working to ensure fiber optic broadband connects to even the poorest and most remote citizens, but more regulation of the industry will be needed to accomplish this goal.

The Rev. Rick Willis is a member of the Eastern Shore Chapter of Virginia Organizing.

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