Virginia Rural Center’s Innovation in Broadband Roundtable Showcases Promising Solutions to the Challenge of Universal High-Speed Internet Access
August 20, 2018
Prince George, Va. – Nearly 150 state and local officials and business leaders convened in Prince George County on August 16 for an Innovation in Broadband Roundtable, sharing updates on the tangible successes and ongoing challenges faced by rural Virginians lacking increasingly vital high-speed internet access.
“Universal broadband is an economic necessity, it’s an educational necessity, it’s a moral necessity,” said panelist Evan Feinman, Executive Director of the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission and Chief Broadband Advisor to Governor Northam.
The event was hosted by the Virginia Rural Center and held at the Prince George Central Wellness Center, one of the first places in the largely rural county to have received broadband thanks to a promising fiber-optic cable deployment program piloted by the Prince George Electric Cooperative (PGEC).
“When you have the right partner, you can stop talking about broadband, and you can start doing it,” said Prince George County Administrator Percy Ashcraft, noting that the county has won 5 awards from state and national organizations for its broadband partnership with the PGEC.
Building on the success of its pilot broadband program providing 30 Mbps speeds, the PGEC formally announced the launch of R4uralband, a new gigabit high-speed internet service offering that will soon be available to its residential and commercial customers. Dubbed R4, which stands for Rural, Reliable, Revolutionary and Responsible, the service will be delivered over a system-wide fiber optic network that PGEC is building to eventually connect all distribution equipment on its grid.
“We are using the history of the electric coop to chart a new course for fiber broadband in Prince George County, today,” said Jeff Stoke, Deputy County Administrator for Prince George County.
And while local partnerships with cooperatives have proven highly beneficial in certain rural communities where they exist, it will take a more holistic approach to fully solve the rural broadband issue according to Feinman.
“Ultimately the solution to universal broadband access is going to be patchwork – some folks will get fiber or coax service from the incumbent telecommunications company, some will get it from their electric coop, some will get it from their telephone coop, some will get it wirelessly,” Feinman explained. “We’re going to engage all of those different efforts.”
Feinman explained that Virginia has some catching up to do around broadband initiatives, especially with respect to “last-mile” efforts.
“That said, Virginia is going to be one of the first states in the union, if not the first state in the union, to get broadband functionally to everybody,” said Feinman. “Governor Northam has said that we need to get him a plan to get it to everybody within 10 years. You’re going to see the first iteration of that plan in January.”
But the middle-mile remains critical, according to Tad Deriso, President and CEO of the Mid‐Atlantic Broadband Communities Corporation (MBC), which has 45 wholesale customers ranging from the largest cable companies in the state to the smallest internet service providers (ISPs).
“If you don’t have that wholesale capability to reach the internet, to reduce that cost of access, then all of the last-mile efforts are really not going to work very well,” said Deriso.
Additional discussions during the roundtable explored other technical solutions and organizational resources seeking to drive broadband efforts forward.
Bob Bailey, Executive Director of the Southern Virginia Innovation Center, discussed the advantages and potential for TV white space – the empty spectrum between over-the-air TV channels – as a broadband solution. Besides requiring very little infrastructure, Bailey explained how this solution does not require line-of-sight to antennas and that there is plenty of unlicensed spectrum available, especially in rural areas.
Chuck Kirby, Executive Director of the Center for Innovative Technology (CIT), also gave an update on the state’s Broadband Advisory Council role in advising the Governor on policy and funding priorities to speed the cost-effective deployment of broadband access in the Commonwealth.
Kirby also highlighted an upcoming Virginia Broadband Summit that the CIT is hosting in partnership with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s BroadbandUSA Program. The summit will take place in Roanoke on October 30, 2018.
Broadband will also be a featured topic of discussion at the Virginia Rural Center’s annual Virginia Rural Summit, taking place October 21-22, 2018 at the Stonewall Jackson Hotel in Staunton.
While challenges remain and there is much work to be done, momentum and resources are building behind the universal broadband access movement.
“This is a 10-year effort, but it’s not a moonshot. We already know how to do this, and we already have the resources to do this. This is a question of whether or not we have the political will to do it,” said Feinman. “I believe based on the folks in the room, we do, so let’s make it happen.”
“This is what revitalization is going to look like in rural Virginia,” added Delegate Emily Brewer, who represents the state’s 64th district.
The roundtable concluded with a presentation by John Tyler Community College President Edward "Ted" Raspiller, who stressed the critical role that broadband plays for colleges who are now challenged to provide a distance learning experience that matches the in-class experience.
Raspiller offered a live demonstration of the power of broadband when he established a videoconference connection with a former distance learning student who described the tremendous impact broadband had on her life.
Struggling to juggle jobs that weren’t the right fit with the responsibilities of raising a young child, the student wanted to go back to school but knew that attending class in person was not the answer.
But online classes, enabled by broadband, offered a solution.
“Distance learning was my answer,” she explained. “And it was because of that little internet connection, that I am what I am today – having earned my master’s degree, doing purposeful work, and living a lifestyle that is much more comfortable for my family.”
“Ask yourself, what can a single internet connection do for you, for a family, for a community?” the student challenged the audience in conclusion.