Though expanding access to high-speed internet is often seen as a federal or local issue, research has indicated that progress toward closing the broadband gap is being made on the state level as well. State leaders routinely grapple with the factors that determine the success or failure of broadband expansion programs, such as physical geography, population density, the service provider marketplace, and state and local law. They also work daily with local stakeholders, such as community leaders and business owners; develop deployment plans; and use data to inform funding decisions—all of which are key to successful expansion efforts.
Virginia has taken these lessons to heart and has set an ambitious goal of universal access to high-speed, reliable internet in the commonwealth before the end of the decade. In an interview that has been edited for length and clarity, Evan Feinman—the governor’s chief broadband advisor—discusses the steps Virginia is taking to try to get there.
Q: What is Virginia—a diverse, geographically varied state—doing to tackle broadband challenges?
A: In 2018, Governor Ralph Northam set a goal of achieving universal broadband connectivity— meaning that local governments and citizens no longer describe serious deficiencies in broadband availability—no later than 2028, with an emphasis on getting as much of that done as swiftly as possible. The governor then appointed a chief broadband advisor, asked that all executive branch employees support the advisor, and tasked the advisor with scoping the problem, developing a plan to achieve universal coverage, and then implementing that plan.
Q: That advisor is you, correct?
Q: So how’s your plan coming along?
A: It’s called the Commonwealth Connect Report, and we update it annually. It lays out an approach on three primary tracks: 1) advocating for policy changes both within the executive branch and in partnership with the Legislature, 2) supporting local governments with their broadband planning, and 3) engaging in grant-making to public/private partnerships to support construction of broadband infrastructure in places where it would otherwise be economically infeasible.
Q: What do those three tracks look like in practice?
A: On the policy side, the commonwealth has significantly improved its policies to encourage broadband deployment, such as refining the permitting processes for broadband network deployment and requiring that local comprehensive plans account for current and future broadband uses. The Legislature also created a first-in-the-nation program that changed the way in which the commonwealth’s investor-owned utilities—privately held companies that provide electricity—are regulated. These companies use fiber in their grids, and this law allows them to lease their excess fiber to internet service providers. That should bring down the cost of expanding access to homes and businesses in areas where it would otherwise be unprofitable for internet service providers to build the necessary infrastructure. West Virginia is using the same approach now, too.
Q: What about planning and funding?
A: In terms of planning, the Legislature approved the creation of a large and technically adept planning support team that works to advise local governments at no cost, and the Office of Broadband created a robust toolkit for local government use.
And the governor’s office and Legislature have dramatically increased the resources they’re putting toward funding of infrastructure through the state’s flagship broadband grant program, the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative, or VATI.
Q: When you talk about a dramatic increase in resources, how much are we talking about?
A: We’ve gone from spending around $1 million a year prior to this administration to over $50 million a year—and that doesn’t even include an additional discretionary $30 million from the CARES Act, last year’s federal COVID-19 relief package, and any forthcoming funding from the American Rescue Plan Act recently signed by President Biden.
Q: What are the key factors you take into account when deciding who gets money to build out the infrastructure?
A: Our primary consideration when we think about spending money on infrastructure is efficiency: How many connections do we get for every dollar we spend? The caveat there is that we don’t support what’s called “cherry picking”—which are projects that make clusters of connections in areas with a high population density while ignoring more isolated locations.
Beyond efficiency, we look at the speed of a constructed network, the cost of basic service packages, and connections of anchor institutions such as libraries, community centers, churches, and civic spaces. We also look at the amount of matching funding from the private provider and locality.
Looking at the affordability side of the equation, we’re focused on developing new models that would offer enough benefits to for-profit internet service providers that they can afford to build connections to low-income Virginians—at least in some markets—without having to rely on ongoing subsidies from the state treasury.
Q: This money is, as you say, funneled through the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative. Can you tell us more about VATI?
A: VATI’s program design and focus prioritize speed and efficiency, because we know that while resources for broadband expansion have dramatically increased, they’re still not adequate to get all Virginians online this year. We’ve connected about 133,000 homes and businesses, and we’ve done it at an efficiency that’s approximately five times greater than comparable federal programs when you measure it on a passing structure-per-dollar basis—which means how many structures are connected per dollar spent.
Q: Let’s take a step back. Why is broadband access so important to the commonwealth’s government in the first place?
A: We know that communities without broadband won’t experience economic growth. And on the other hand, we know that investments in broadband infrastructure can lead to dramatic economic expansions. A joint study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Amazon found that in Virginia alone, universal broadband would mean at least $2.24 billion increased annual sales, $1.29 billion annual value added, 9,415 added jobs, and $452.4 million in annual wages. And other studies show that broad use of connected technology could lead to increases in agricultural output of up to 18%, which would mean billions more in economic impact in Virginia.
Broadband is also the top sociopolitical demand of the hundreds of thousands of Virginians who still lack access. Keeping these groups unconnected means locking huge segments of our population out of the primary public square and the modern economy.
Q: What happens if those groups don’t get connected?
A: It is unacceptable that hundreds of thousands of Virginians aren’t enjoying a standard of living that most Virginians would consider necessary. Worse, our vulnerable populations suffer most: Children without access to the internet have worse educational outcomes than do their peers with a reliable connection, and we know that, during this crisis, around 10% of Virginia’s schoolchildren didn’t have home access to tele-education.
At the other end of the age spectrum, elderly Virginians without broadband access face significant hurdles to aging in place safely.
Finally, we know that our veterans are overrepresented in rural areas—and that they face a deep and urgent need for the telehealth and telepsychiatry services that are unavailable to them if they don’t have broadband connections.
Q: So what’s the best way to connect these unconnected people? Policymakers are trying to figure that out, in terms of what kind of technology they should focus on.
A: The primary thing policymakers should know about the technological side of broadband expansion is that, for the most part, focusing on new or emerging technology is a red herring.
Q: A red herring? How so?
A: We already have ways, such as fiber-to-the-premises and fixed wireless, to deliver broadband reliably to customers. These technologies work today, and they’ll continue to improve. And to the extent that anything can be future-proof, these technologies are—at least for the useful life cycle of the equipment.
Q: But what about mobile wireless and 5G? Don’t they have a role to play in expanding broadband access?
A: Mobile wireless and 5G expansions are actually not good candidates to solve the problem of broadband infrastructure access, though there may be a role for 5G in making broadband more affordable in densely populated areas where infrastructure is already in place. The problem with 5G is that it simply requires too much equipment per square mile to be practical in an area that’s not densely populated. And 5G transmitters would need to be connected to a fiber network in any case.
A: Satellite services, whether you’re talking about traditional geosynchronous or new low Earth orbit systems, are either too slow or entirely untested. Geosynchronous satellites will never solve their latency problem—the time it takes for data to travel between two points—because they’re constrained by immutable laws of physics. And low Earth orbit systems may become a viable option sometime in the next few years, but even the system closest to regular service delivery still faces massive technological and business model challenges.
There’s just no reason to use satellite other than in very isolated locations where it would be impractical to extend existing infrastructure.
Q: Let’s move from the challenges of technology to the challenges that have emerged during the pandemic. Have your efforts changed since COVID-19?
A: The COVID crisis has created a number of new challenges for all Americans. And it has shined a spotlight on the fundamental inequity that results from a societal failure to solve the problem of universal broadband access. This spotlight serves to emphasize what was already true: Closing the digital divide is an economic necessity, a sociopolitical demand, and a moral obligation.
Q: What’s next for Virginia when it comes to broadband?
A: We have a few significant challenges. First, we must maintain effort on the infrastructure program so that we can achieve Gov. Northam’s goal of universal access even before the date he set of 2028. Second, we need to turn our attention to the affordability problem, ideally through the creation of unique delivery models that could lead to connectivity for low-income Virginians without ongoing public-sector expense—while at the same time acknowledging that in some cases we may need to provide some kind of public subsidy to get service to those who can’t be served any other way. Finally, we must work to encourage competition among providers in already served markets, which should decrease consumer costs and drive innovation.
Q: And the moral obligation you referenced a minute ago?
A: We must afford equal opportunity to all Virginians to participate in modern society, to do business in the modern economy, and to receive the services to which they’re entitled. Virginians deserve access to those opportunities regardless of where they’re born, and it’s our commonwealth’s moral obligation to ensure that becomes reality.