In the 1990s we called it the “Information Superhighway.” We envisioned a road leading to an interconnected world where data would be transmitted with the push of a button. Over time, this highway blossomed into a global network of data that transformed communication and commerce, building bridges across geographic divides. With the advent of broadband internet, the vision of a connected world was realized, bringing a wealth of opportunity.
Today, broadband is as essential to our lives as the roads we drive on. It accelerates economic growth, education, and workforce development, providing critical tools to the most vital institutions in our communities — including schools, libraries, public safety, health, and medicine. Broadband has created a platform for job training, distance learning, telecommuting, and systems affecting a range of administrative functions for governments, businesses, organizations, and other institutions. High-speed broadband internet creates a host of advantages.
Unfortunately, parts of the Tri-Cities region have been shut out. Local officials, business owners, and constituents tell me regularly of missed opportunities and unrealized ideas because broadband remains unavailable in parts of my district. According to the Prince George Electric Cooperative, nearly 1 million people in Virginia lack access to high speed broadband internet, with 20 percent of residents in Prince George County — roughly 7,500 — being denied this service.
Even as Virginia leads the way in cybersecurity, a digital disconnect exists, denying access to quality, affordable broadband internet in parts of our commonwealth. Companies remain hesitant to invest in rural, sparsely populated areas that they deem less profitable. This has caused local governments to find solutions on their own. With technology continuing to advance rapidly, we should not allow any of our communities to get left behind because a broadband provider cannot return a large enough profit.
Several communities have started to create regional broadband networks on their own or through public-private partnerships. Virginia Beach’s City Council plans to connect their businesses through their own municipal broadband network. The Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority and Prince George Electric Cooperative are already expanding coverage and service options for their residents. And Dinwiddie County has partnered with SCS Broadband to provide wireless service to its households.
These efforts have met resistance by groups that claim these municipal networks will waste taxpayer money by providing overlapping service. On the contrary, these municipal broadband efforts introduce more options for consumers and expand service to areas that currently lack access.
This session, two bills, HB 2108 and HB 2196 — which I oppose — are being considered in the General Assembly and would hinder efforts by localities to establish broadband networks. HB 2108, also known as the Virginia Broadband Deployment Act, as currently written, requires that municipalities make public their rates, fees, and charges for their services and excludes them from exemptions through the Freedom of Information Act.
Current law already addresses rate, fee, and service charge disclosure. The prevailing approach is that localities are excluded from exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act that private companies currently enjoy. As a result, municipalities could potentially have to reveal sensitive business information that could hinder their competitiveness.
It could also hurt public-private partnerships by discouraging private companies from partnering with public broadband providers for fear that they would have to disclose their proprietary information. There is a strong possibility that additional changes will be made to this bill.
HB 2196 (SB 1282), which failed to pass the House, addressed procedures for installing wireless communication infrastructure in public rights-of-way. This bill would have weakened local zoning authority by requiring localities to allow wireless facilities in their public right-of-way without land-use authority or appropriate compensation. Also, development would likely have focused on more densely populated areas that would yield greater profits, so underserved locations still would be hard-pressed to receive service.
Where companies opt out of providing broadband service in certain areas that they deem unprofitable, localities should be able to fill that void. And where opportunities exist to provide superior service, counties and cities should be able to enter the marketplace with private businesses so that both may provide those alternatives.
In today’s knowledge-based global economy, the absence of broadband creates extra obstacles for individuals in our communities. They are deprived of access to the benefits that broadband has created in workforce development, job growth, and education in emerging fields. Essentially, this absence creates a literal and figurative disconnect — from broadband and from emerging opportunity.
Any conversation about building a Virginia economy that taps into evolving fields must include a dialogue about bridging the digital gaps created by the limited availability of broadband. Localities must be empowered to build broadband networks that serve all of their citizens to ensure that no area of our commonwealth is disconnected.
Lashrecse Aird, a Democrat, represents the 63rd District in the Virginia House of Delegates. Contact her at DelLAird@house.virginia.gov.