Richmond Times-Dispatch: Editorial: As Virginia nears universal broadband, the state has to measure its return on investment


When Gov. Ralph Northam began his term in 2018, an estimated 660,000 Virginians lacked high-speed internet access. That staggering figure was a metric the governor took personally.

Northam grew up on a farm just outside of Onancock on the state’s Eastern Shore. His hometown was among the unserved places, and long before the COVID-19 pandemic became the driving issue behind broadband policy, he channeled his personal experience into a sense of urgency.

Last month, nearing the end of his term, Northam took the podium at a fire station in Goochland County with a sense of accomplishment. He announced more than $722 million in grants that would support 35 broadband projects across 70 localities. Roughly 278,000 households, businesses and community institutions are positioned to gain high-speed service, and Virginia now is on pace to achieve universal broadband by 2024.

“We always knew that broadband was important for everybody,” said Northam, whose team has steered more than $2 billion in public and private investments over the past four years. “No matter who you are, no matter where you are in Virginia, it has become a necessity.”

But the metrics that have shaped recent broadband efforts, led by the number of unconnected homes and businesses, have to evolve going forward. Virginia must measure the return on investment. Collect concrete data about “who” is receiving new internet service, “where” it is being placed and how it is generating progress.

Circle back to Northam’s initial case for pursuing universal broadband. The digital divide in Virginia was caused by a “fundamental math problem,” the governor’s team explained in its Commonwealth Connect report. For private providers, the cost of building 1 mile of service in Arlington and Accomack counties might be the same, but densely populated areas like Arlington had a distinct advantage.

“For areas with lower densities, the cost of the infrastructure outweighs the potential revenue that could be gained from customers,” the report warned. “In those areas, without government intervention, citizens will never be served.”

“Government intervention” has been characterized by four paths over the past four years:

  • First, Virginia ramped up state grants that support public-private partnerships between localities and providers. Annual investment in the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative jumped from $1 million in 2017 to $50 million in 2021.
  • Second, the General Assembly adopted laws that help promote coverage and innovation. For example, Virginia’s utility-leverage program allows major electricity companies to partner with localities and providers, and build infrastructure serving hard-to-reach areas.
  • Third, state leadership developed detailed guidance and resources for localities to develop individually tailored broadband plans. Information sharing has ranged from sample requests for proposals, to maps of available services and assets.
  • Finally, strong relationship-building yielded the Commonwealth Connect Coalition, an alliance of 100-plus businesses, nonprofits and other stakeholders invested in improved access.

Why put time and energy into these initiatives? The Commonwealth Connect report stressed there was a significant return on investment.

One study cited that universal broadband could add $1.29 billion to Virginia’s gross state product while creating upward of 9,400 jobs. Home property values also were estimated to grow between 3% and 8%.

Another study by the USDA Economic Research Service found agriculture, the commonwealth’s largest industry, could increase output by 18% through the adoption of connected technologies. Agriculture already generates $70 billion in economic activity for Virginia, and broadband’s impact could add another $12.6 billion.

But the Commonwealth Connect report admitted “these calculations, while robust, still fail to capture the economic benefits of increased market access” for rural businesses, telehealth patients, students and more.

“It can be easy to say, ‘Well, some of our county is connected,’ ” Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, added at the Dec. 13 event in Goochland. “But that’s not everybody.”

Extending Spanberger’s sentiment, it can be easy to say ‘Well, our entire county is connected.’ But what about the people behind the data? There’s more work to do to ensure that better outcomes are experienced by households and businesses with newfound connections.

Look no further than the tumult of this past week’s snowstorm across Virginia. Local governments already are using digital tools to send civic alerts that help residents prepare for — and survive during — a crisis.

Last Sunday morning, Goochland County reached out to residents via social media: “No matter the weather forecast, downloading the @DominionEnergy app to easily report and check the status of power outages right from your fingertips is a smart idea.”

By Tuesday afternoon, with a majority of residents facing a multiday power outage, Louisa County announced help via Twitter for residents — with a major caveat: “There is a warming shelter available at the Holly Grove [Fire Department]. We cannot provide transportation.”

Current broadband investments have to lead to stronger systems in the future — ones that improve power-outage response times, provide shelter and transportation, and most of all, prevent motorists from being stranded for an incomprehensible 24 hours along a major interstate highway.

Great strides have been made in the past four years to close the digital divide. But a connection alone won’t result in improved outcomes. With more than $2 billion on the line, we have to monitor the implementation and collect data that demonstrates a real return on investment for Virginians.

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