Courthouse News Service: Rural Virginia community offers roadmap for successful broadband expansion

COURTHOUSE NEWS SERVICE, BRAD KUTNER

In the rolling Virginia hills about 30 miles west of Richmond lies a high-end beer maker called Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewing. Since 2013, Lisa Reynolds Brotherton and others have gotten together to make a beverage they were proud of out of ingredients they grow themselves.

“You’re seeing farm lands disappear in Virginia, so how do you create an economic model where [former farms and others] can make enough money,” said the businesswoman turned farm-owning craft brewer as she toured her facility Tuesday morning with Virginia Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger in tow. 

“It looked like Mars before we built it,” she said of the hilly and sprawling, wildflower-lined paths which lead to a farmhouse housing half a dozen two-story brewing tanks. 

“We won’t have broadband for a few years and I can’t jump to a bigger brewery without that,” she adds. 

Broadband, or high-speed internet over fiber optic cables or other reliable mediums, is out of reach for about 225,000 households and businesses across the state — including Brotherton, who uses patchy satellite internet at her business and home. The brewing machines all run on a network which relies on digital signals, and the in-house marketing as well as the content her customers generate for social media all need to get pushed out online somehow — something her current connection struggles to achieve.  

But Brotherton was optimistic; while the last year and half of pandemic created a new wave of nightmares for her business, the passage of the American Rescue Plan by Spanberger and other Democrats in Congress offered new hope — and funds — to fix her broadband problem.

“There’s certainly a clear example of a model that can work,” said the Central Virginia congresswoman, whose district encompasses both suburbs and rural regions, of the nearly $2 trillion federal stimulus given to states and localities and creating a massive war chest to fight bad or unavailable internet nationwide. “State leaders have been working, local leaders here in Goochland have been working, and now we have realized, from a federal perspective, this is an important part of our recovery.” 

And Goochland and the surrounding county, with about 41,000 unserved businesses and households, hopes its broadband will be a success story following the federal investment. This month, state lawmakers allocated $700 million in ARP funds specifically for broadband with the aim of expanding service which, in the wake of the pandemic, has proven to be uniquely imperative. 

“There’s only one kind of business card, those who have emails on them,” said Blair Levin, paraphrasing former Intel chairman Andy Grove, about the importance the internet plays in the modern economy. A Brookings Institute senior fellow who worked under the FCC to develop the 2010 National Broadband Plan, Levin’s work was a roadmap for how important so-called universal connectivity — getting everyone connected to the net — was 10 years ago. He argues it has only become more important since. 

And while he jokes the coronavirus has been a better marketer of universal broadband than he was since he found little support from lawmakers for the effort a decade ago, he’s glad to see his work come to fruition even if it took such a dramatic event to inspire it. 

“In an economy marked by work from anywhere, the presence of broadband for all kinds of purposes — hospitality or otherwise — is pretty significant,” he said. 

“It’s about funding connections and getting a start,” said Gary Wood, president and CEO of Firefly Broadband, a service provided by the nearly 100-year-old nonprofit electric utility Central Virginia Electric Cooperative. He said his outfit was ready to connect the 41,000 unlinked locations for about $100 million, a level of investment his organization couldn’t have fathomed without the influx of ARP funds. 
 
“This is not going to bring a 20% return, that’s why the big guys won’t do it,” he said, suggesting even a 70% signup rate from the newly linked customers would mean CVEC only breaks even. “Every place that has electricity should have broadband. People say it’s difficult; we figured it out years ago with electricity. We just need support.”

Wood said the timeline for expansion was less than folks might imagine as well, with some users coming online by the start of 2022 if the funding, workforce and supplies fall in place. 

And he stressed the unique flexibility of the ARP funds will be integral to that speed. He, along with members of Goochland County government also in attendance, suggested the first $25 million could come from ARP locality monies issued earlier in the year while they wait for the rest from the state, via additional ARP funding appropriated by the General Assembly, to roll in later. 

“We can move quickly by getting underway right away,” he added. 

That’s good news to Brotherton, but even better news to her daughter who sat in the background for Tuesday’s event with Spanberger. 

“For teenagers nowadays, everything is online,” Grace Brotherton told Spanberger after noting she couldn’t stay in touch with friends over the weekend after a storm knocked out her internet connection.
 
“If I couldn’t get my emails through I can’t learn about school or my sports events,” she said, before exclaiming something obvious to a generation born online: “And new companies can’t get known if they’re not on there.” 

Spanberger was certainly glad to bring the money, and connectivity, home to her district, a once-red House seat which she flipped as part of the Blue Wave following the election of former President Donald Trump. But as she has throughout her political career, she framed the federal handout as a successful partnership of empowering localities with politicians in Washington acting only as a financial backer and little else. 

“When it comes to when we need to make tactical changes on the ground, we in Washington could spend the money with precision, but nobody knows it better than local county leaders and those at the state level,” she said. 

But the politics will matter when she’s up for reelection next year. 

Professor Stephen Farnsworth at the University of Mary Washington said it’s hard to not see policy actions like Biden’s ARP funding as a political move. But he said it would be a bit too cynical to understate the impact universal connectivity will have. 

“Among the various forms of investment in the public, broadband is one that generates great returns,” he said, pointing to the educational benefits outside of emergency online schooling during a pandemic as well as every other benefit associated with getting more people online with telehealth for the elderly and commercial impacts top among them. 

“For a small business to be able to reach outside its community, it means more customers, employees and tax revenue for localities and the state,” he added.

As for universal connectivity’s impact on politics, he’s less confident. 

“Democrats before this spending will still be Democrats and the same goes for Republicans,” he said, suggesting people are more set in their ways than ever before in today’s political arena.  He said that stubbornness will apply for the spending package, passed solely by Democrats, as well.

“You can be a small-government conservative, take a government handout and still be a small-government conservative,” he said. “The human mind is totally willing to make exceptions for oneself.”

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