Continued from Wednesday June 12...

How can the state help expand rural broadband if it doesn’t know who has broadband and who doesn’t?

This is a problem that’s not as big as might seem. The lack of detailed maps really just matters along the edges. Everybody pretty much knows where the dead zones are.

The Commonwealth Connect report estimates that there are 660,000 homes and businesses that lack broadband — and lays out a 10-year plan on how to connect them. That would push Northam’s 2022 goal to 2028. The total cost is put at a staggering $1 billion, although here’s a good comparison: That’s less half the cost of upgrading Interstate 81, so maybe it’s not so staggering, after all. The report projects that Virginia will pay for $320 million of that. The rest would come from a patchwork of other sources – the federal government, the tobacco commission and the telecoms themselves. Northam proposed this year the state spend $50 million on rural broadband. A more parsimonious General Assembly cut that to $15 million, although here’s a useful comparison: Until a few years ago, the state wasn’t spending anything on rural broadband. In 2017, under Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Virginia spent its first $1 million. Last year, the state spent $4 million — so you can also say the legislature nearly quadrupled spending on rural broadband, although it will have to spend a lot more to meet that extended 2028 goal.

The legislature also quietly passed two bills that will help expand rural broadband. The most significant comes from Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County. His bill would allow utilities — such as Dominion Power and Appalachian Power — to install cables that would carry broadband into hard-to-reach rural areas. That’s a simple sentence for a complex set of regulations. It’s also kind of a big deal that reflects an unusual confluence of events. Last year, the General Assembly passed a controversial bill dealing with utility regulation. Public attention was naturally focused on electric rates, but behind it were some technical details dealing with “smart grid” technology. Layman’s version: Virginia’s utilities will soon start installing some whiz-bang technology to monitor stuff. If they’re laying cables anyway, why couldn’t they add a few more for rural broadband? That sure cuts down the up-front cost. That’s what O’Quinn’s bill enables. Some states are a long way from installing “smart grid” technology; some states already have. Virginia, conveniently, is just about to — which makes the timing serendipitous. For rural Virginia, O’Quinn’s bill might just be the most important one that got passed this year. The other bill, by Del. Bob Thomas, R-Fredericksburg, allows localities to create a “service district” that can contract with internet service providers to extend broadband into underserved areas. This is more complicated to explain, so we won’t. Suffice it to say, though, that this gives local governments the tool to take matters into their own hands.

No matter who’s up or who’s down in Richmond, this is the stuff that really matters.

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