ARNOLD: Make the internet more accessible to rural Virginians

Citizens should be vigilant of legislation that might jeopardize rural access to broadband internet

The House of Delegates Tuesday passed a curtailed version of the Virginia Broadband Deployment Act, a bill which would have originally restricted municipal broadband initiatives in places where limited internet access is already available. The bill, introduced by Del. Kathy Byron (R-Lynchburg), would have stifled local efforts to provide broadband access and the economic development that could come with it. Furthermore, Byron’s motivations are questionable at best and unconscionable at worst. She’s not serving rural communities — she’s serving big companies like Verizon, Comcast and CenturyLink, all of which have made hefty campaign contributions to Byron in the past.

The bill would have required municipalities seeking to create their own network to first hire a consulting firm to publish a report on the current conditions for internet access, then wait at least six months for private companies to bid for the chance to provide the service themselves. The new version requires municipal broadband initiatives to meet certain transparency requirements.

A 2009 study conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that “areas with low population size … or places where population is widely dispersed over demanding terrain generally have difficulty attracting broadband service providers.” The hesitancy on the part of service providers is reasonable since, often, the population density in rural areas is simply not high enough to justify expansion to those areas. Rural communities are left with limited internet access or none at all — and since many modern businesses need the internet to operate, economic growth in these places is stunted.

High-speed internet has become an integral part of life for many Americans, but an access gap persists between people in rural and urban locations. As of 2015, 74 percent of urban households had residential broadband connections, while only 64 percent of rural households did. This gap has real effects. The same 2009 USDA study found that employment opportunities increase more quickly and private earnings are larger in countries where citizens have had access to broadband for a longer time, compared to counties without a long history of broadband access.

Fortunately for many rural communities, municipalities often step in to lay the infrastructure when private companies refuse to do so. Siddhartha Mahanta, writing for The New Republic, concludes that municipal broadband networks are a “good option for vast, sparsely populated rural areas because laying cable across them is a costly proposition, one that’s hard for private companies to justify without a greater guaranteed return than such areas can typically provide.”

Byron claimed the original bill would prioritize the most underserved areas, that municipal broadband networks are difficult and expensive to maintain and that municipal networks have often failed to compete with private networks, “leaving taxpayers holding the bag.” Byron hopes transparency requirements of the new version of the bill will prevent municipal networks initiatives from becoming corrupt, citing the municipal network in Bristol that was plagued by corruption and debt.

Byron’s argument that her bill would have served the “most underserved areas” is merely a clever way to twist a technical feature of the bill. The requirements imposed on municipal broadband initiatives only applied when at least one private provider offers 10Mbps downloads and 1Mbps uploads to 90 percent of the area’s population. This, however, is an incredibly low threshold. Though a 10Mbps connection would allow an individual to watch Netflix (which requires a minimum 5Mbps connection), it is not nearly enough for a business, particularly one which relies strongly on the internet, to operate. Many underserved communities would be left without municipal options or legitimate private options.

Byron’s argument for the original bill also ignored the many successful municipal networks that already exist in Virginia, like the fiber network in Danville, Va. which is funded entirely by subscribers, or the Page County network, which “connects the Page Memorial Hospital, the Valley Health Stanley Clinic and the Northwestern Community Services Board in Luray.”

Byron seems to be blind to the fact that big telecommunications companies have had the chance to lay fiber and, for the most part, failed to do so. The Virginia Broadband Deployment Act is part of a long tradition of big companies like Time Warner and AT&T lobbying against broadband development, though they will not lay the infrastructure themselves. Byron has received nearly $40,000 in campaign contributions from Verizon since 1998, over $9,000 from AT&T, $3,000 from Comcast and $3,500 from CenturyLink.

Often sponsored by corporate lobbyists, bills like Byron’s protect the interests of powerful telecommunications companies instead of the struggling economies of rural towns. Though the revisions to Byron’s bill mean the worst elements of the proposed legislation have been defeated for the time being, Virginians should remain vigilant to bills which restrict localities’ power, limit competition and make broadband less accessible.

Jordan Arnold is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at j.arnold@cavalierdaily.com.

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