CULPEPER STAR-EXPONENT, ALLISON BROPHY CHAMPION
Michelle North can see where the high-speed internet runs just past her farm, but her residence cannot connect to it at a reasonable cost. She lives in an area, according to the Federal Communications Commission, that is already served.
Notoriously inaccurate FCC census block maps showing who has internet and who doesn’t means the former Culpeper School Board chairwoman is also being cut out of the county’s up-and-coming broadband extension to thousands of households and businesses.
“That makes me really angry,” North told White House officials in Culpeper last week for the 2022 Rural High-Speed Internet Summit hosted by Rep. Abigail Spanberger. “I’ve seen and experienced what lack of connectivity has done—so frustrating. It’s all about money.”
She uses hotspots to connect to the internet and it’s less than optimal. Connecting to the high-speed that runs past her farm would cost thousands of dollars, North said of prior estimates from the communications giant that serves certain areas around Culpeper.
“I had to wait for it to reload so I could do my taxes,” she said of her hotspot. “It’s a necessity.”
Similar stories were heard from others attending the April 19 summit in the library community room, people in professional positions, parents with school-aged children unable to access the internet. White House officials described it as the “Swiss cheese effect” with holes of unavailability. The digital divide is a stark reality for many local families.
All aspects of communities are driven by the ability to connect or not connect, Spanberger said.
“The discussion today is about the stories you are all sharing,” she said. “It’s about making connections in more ways than one…When it pertains to telehealth, precision agriculture, e-commerce, video conferencing, school or just checking your email from home, the impact that lack of connectivity makes on people’s lives is important.”
Joining the congresswoman for the summit touting the $100 million in federal dollars each state will receive for broadband proliferation through the president’s infrastructure bill were former Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, special representative for broadband with the National Telecommunications & Information Administration and White House Senior Adviser Mitch Landrieu, former mayor of New Orleans.
“As technology improves, we want to make sure folks don’t get left behind,” the 7th District congresswoman said. “There are many, many miles of internet to go before we say we have closed this digital divide.”
It’s not right that a mom has to sit outside of a McDonald’s with her child in the back of the car so they can access internet to do their homework, Landrieu said.
“We are here today to hear from you where the gaps are,” he said of this year’s planned update to the FCC census block maps, slated for initial completion by the fall. “The maps weren’t right the first time, so you say hurry the hell up, get the maps right, but hurry up.”
President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill that will address connectivity is the most significant piece of legislation in last 50 years, Landrieu said.
“The president’s commitment is to make sure everybody is connected to high-speed internet everywhere in America,” he said.
Berke agreed, saying a parcel-by-parcel update to the FCC maps is the start.
“Communities will have to look at them to determine if are accurate and give feedback so we can make good decisions,” he said. “Funds are only as good as the mapping that comes with it. This is a legacy issue for the president, and he’s determined to get this right knowing that is one of the biggest barriers.”
This about making sure people don’t feel left out, Berke added.
“Where the rubber meets the road is in Culpeper,” he said. “This where people are going to get their connection turned on, make sure they can afford it and have the ability to use it once they turn it on.”
Orange County Supervisor Jim White, chairman of the Orange Broadband Authority, testified to the inaccuracy of the FCC maps and how it is hindering local citizens from accessing the FiberLync currently going in the ground around the county.
“It’s scary, but it varies address by address, whether it’s fixed wireless or satellite or wired or cellular. That has to be solved to the level it passes the giggle test for policy decisions and grant application determinations,” White said.
Around 270 miles of FiberLync passing by 4,500 households has been laid in Orange in the past year since the county used federal grants to create its own high-speed provider. But those inaccurately listed as served on the FCC maps are disqualified from getting it.
“Our challenge now we are facing, in addition to running out of money, we are now dealing with that last, last mile, which gets very challenging,” White said.
While fiber is the gold standard, Berke said, localities will have to decide for themselves on using other technologies, like fixed wireless, to reach the most remote of locations.
There will be a lot of different solutions, he said, as to how everyone in America will eventually get served with high-speed.
Fiber is preferred because it’s future-approved, but the exception will be where it’s not economically or topographically feasible, White House officials said.
Culpeper County grants administrator Laura Loveday lives with her husband and children in eastern Orange County in an area the FCC maps say is served, but is not. Her household, therefore, is excluded from initial phases of the FiberLync expansion. She can see the termination point from her mailbox.
The family gets on the internet with unreliable hotspots that lose speed based on collective use in her neighborhood, near Lake Anna.
“Last night our oldest daughter was about to start a music lesson virtually and we’re screaming, ‘Who has the good internet?!’ because some work better than others at some times,” Loveday said.
Culpeper County Administrator John Egertson noted Loveday worked on the successful grant application that will allow Culpeper to extend fiber to thousands of homes, starting in the near future, to all homes considered unserved.
“But the ‘quote on quote’ served areas, which will remain in Comcast’s hands, are not served,” he said. “That’s got everything to do with using census blocks as the definition—if one tract in a block is served then it’s considered served. That’s the problem.”
Culpeper resident Beth Castro, another local resident listed on the FCC maps as served but not really, said they were quoted a price of $20-$30,000 to extend fiber to their home. She lives on the same street at a local electric utility in proximity to the DMV.
“I know they have good internet and on the other side of the road they all have Comcast, but our house, the house next door and a court of probably a dozen homes we have nothing,” Castro said.
Connecting to high-speed has to be affordable, said Berke.
“That stinks,” he said, hearing the stories. “We know that in today’s world you have to get it…Your problem has got to be solved and that’s why we’re here.”
Berke urged those in attendance to keep an eye on the updated FCC maps and to let them know if the corrections are not made.
“It won’t be 100 percent accurate, but it would be nice to know for people we’ve heard from, is this covered? The president’s goal is internet for all,” he said.
Added Landrieu, “Knowledge is the great equalizer and the president wants to level the playing field and not leave anyone behind…We’re laying the groundwork for future generations. If the maps are wrong then you’re hiding in plain sight. You have to report back up.”
Even the CEO of the Culpeper Chamber of Commerce cannot access high-speed internet at his home in the county. He said he was quoted a price of $34,000 to extend it from the corporate provider.
Say said his neighbor, a top level health department official, has to work in town until 7 or 8 every night because she doesn’t internet at home. And sometimes he has to drive his daughter into his office in town to finish her homework once all their gigs have been used.
“It’s something we are very passionate about in Culpeper that we are able to get the access to our community,” Say said.
The story of Culpeper County is in many ways the story of the whole country, Landrieu noted.
“At the end of the day, the stories matter,” he said.