In the heart of rural Virginia, nestled among rolling hills and serene landscapes, lives the Anderson family. For them, a reliable high-speed internet connection is more than just a convenience; it is a lifeline to the modern world. Yet, despite living in the 21st century, they find themselves trapped in a digital divide, unable to access the opportunities and services that many of us take for granted.
Virginia plan projects universal broadband access by 2028
As the head of a statewide broadband association, I have heard countless stories like the Andersons’. These families, who reside in unserved areas, have dreams of easy and affordable access to the internet for education, telehealth, and economic opportunities. While 2028 was supposed to be the year we bridged this digital divide and achieved universal broadband access for all Virginians, the road to progress is now fraught with obstacles, delays and finger pointing, putting it in jeopardy.
Luckily, House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria has introduced House Bill 800, which could speed up broadband availability. Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax recently introduced a similar bill, Senate Bill 713 in the Senate.
For background, last year, electric cooperatives – which play an indispensable role in expanding broadband to rural areas – faced their own set of broadband-related challenges, encountering delays and exorbitant fees from railroad companies when seeking to install high-speed fiber cables over railroad-owned property. They argued that these delays risked their ability to meet the mandated deadlines to complete construction on their broadband projects. These setbacks could trigger the potential to have grant funds clawed back and prevent broadband being built to the unserved.
Ironically, some electric cooperatives are now imposing delays and obstacles to broadband expansion, jeopardizing billions of dollars – $224 million in state funds and $2.23 billion in federal funds – stemming from outdated utility poles. To expand broadband, cooperatives must perform “make ready work,” where cooperative poles are inspected to ensure that broadband infrastructure can be installed in compliance with, at minimum, the National Electric Safety Code safety standards. Without a deadline to perform this make-ready work, many months can go by before those inspections are conducted and make-ready work can be completed. Sadly, new utility pole attachers are finding that many cooperative poles have fallen into disrepair and no longer comply with modern safety standards, yet electric cooperatives are pushing for broadband providers – and, by extension, taxpayers across Virginia – to foot the bill for replacing infrastructure they have neglected for years.
Pushing broadband into rural Va. gives us a chance to act like a commonwealth
Herein lies both the problem and its solution.
The oversight of utility infrastructure preparation is divided between two entities: the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for investor-owned utilities like Dominion Energy or Appalachian Power; and the State Corporation Commission (SCC) for electric cooperatives. Just last month, the FCC updated the rules that apply to investor-owned utilities (IOU).
Under the current Virginia state code, electric cooperatives are permitted to charge broadband providers for access to utility poles , but there is no clear set of rules that apply to the make-ready process or timelines. This ad-hoc approach enables electric cooperatives to impose unreasonable costs on government-funded broadband expansion projects to subsidize overdue upgrades to their aging infrastructure, over and above the charges that cooperatives impose to lease access to these poles.
House Bill 800 and Senate Bill 713 propose a solution by applying FCC’s rules to electric cooperatives while maintaining the SCC’s regulatory role. It aims to standardize the regulation of utility pole access, which will allow for rapid expansion of broadband while also ensuring equitable and safe infrastructure improvements across the state. It also seeks to distribute costs between the utility pole owner and the internet service provider, preventing monopoly pole owners from disproportionately impacting consumers, which is a threat being leveraged by electric cooperatives. By passing this legislation, electric cooperatives would continue to earn revenue from pole usage while also being held accountable for the maintenance and future readiness of their utility poles.
Policymakers could ensure fair internet access for all Virginians by passing House Bill 800 and Senate Bill 713, aligning electric cooperatives with FCC guidelines. The legislation will prevent consumers and broadband companies from being placed in danger of having their grants revoked and leaving Virginians unserved. Swift action is needed to remove barriers to broadband expansion and to protect the interests of families like the Andersons, ensuring equitable digital opportunities for every citizen in the state.
Tyler Fields is your internet guru, delving into the latest trends, developments, and issues shaping the online world. With a focus on internet culture, cybersecurity, and emerging technologies, Tyler keeps readers informed about the dynamic landscape of the internet and its impact on our digital lives.