Category Archives: Telecommunications

Northam’s Affordable, Not-So-Ambitious Plan for Reviving Rural Virginia

Ralph Northam, Democratic Party candidate for governor, grew up on the Eastern Shore, so it’s not surprising that he has given considerable thought to the challenges of economic development in Virginia’s small towns and rural communities. Earlier this week, he unveiled his plan for economic growth in rural Virginia.

If you’re looking for a “Marshall Plan” to reinvigorate rural Virginia, this is not it. The plan is not ambitious, and there may not be enough in it to get rural Virginians especially excited about Northam’s candidacy. But it has this virtue: Proposals don’t require spending vast sums of money, so they are at least feasible from a budgetary perspective. This is a plan that Northam, if elected, has a realistic chance of implementing.

Personally, I distrust “Marshall Plan” approaches to chronic social and economic challenges. Instead, in our fiscally constrained era, I’m a fan of low-cost, low-risk initiatives that will likely yield a positive return on investment. In that spirit, I’ll start by illuminated the most promising ideas in the Northam plan and work my way down the list.

Virginia’s Rapid Readiness Program. Northam proposes a “rapid readiness program” similar to successful workforce training programs in Georgia and Louisiana. “We could get this program started here in Virginia with a ten million dollar investment, with funding tied to business participants, number of projects delivered, and individuals successful trained,” states his plan.

Assuming that Northam is drawing upon the thinking of Virginia Economic Development Partnership CEO Stephen Moret, who set up the Louisiana program, the program would function as a extension of Virginia’s economic development effort by offering a workforce-training solution as an incentive for corporations to invest in Virginia. The program would differ from existing educational/training offerings by creating a team capable of providing customized training within a time frame required by corporations to get their operations up and running.

While the rapid readiness program would be applied across the state, rural areas arguably would benefit the most because such training applies most frequently to light manufacturing projects that typically locate in smaller communities.

I’m not sure $10 million is sufficient to fund this program properly. Regardless, there is a readily available pot of money — Northam and Moret no doubt would disagree with me about this — and that is the Commonwealth Opportunity Fund, which the state dips into to provide “incentives” for economic development projects. But as Moret himself said in a presentation to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia two days ago, workforce is one of the top three factors (and often the No. 1 factor) that corporations consider when deciding where to locate. Incentives are a secondary factor. Shifting money from incentives to workforce training looks like a no-brainer to me.

Expanding renewable energy. Expanding solar generation is viable rural economic development strategy. Solar farms may create few permanent jobs, but they do increase the tax base, and they often pay streams of royalties to landowners (depending on how particular deals are structured).

“In my home county of Accomack on the Eastern Shore,” says Northam, “the commonwealth’s largest solar farm is in the process of being built, which will ultimately power several data centers owned by Amazon.”

Northam says he is committed to working with Virginia’s electric utilities and the General Assembly to “remove barriers that stand in the way of developing and expanding clean energy efforts.” Note the phrase “remove barriers.” Northam is not asking for new subsidies or tax breaks. Solar doesn’t need subsidies; market forces increasingly favor solar. Rather, Northam wants to remove obstacles that inhibit businesses, entrepreneurs and homeowners from building rooftop solar and solar farms.

Utility-scale solar like the Amazon Web Services farms in Accomack need little help — Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power have ample incentive to deploy solar on a large scale. The barriers exist at two levels: local zoning codes and state regulatory policy. Local governments need to make their zoning codes more solar friendly. Meanwhile, state lawmakers need to craft “net metering” legislation that balances the interests of independent solar producers with those of electric utilities who maintain the electric power grid that everyone depends upon.

Broadband for all. Most people would accept the proposition that broadband Internet service is critical infrastructure for economic development today. The problem is that sparsely populated rural areas are not attractive markets to Virginia’s big broadband providers.

Northam points to a pilot project in Southside Virginia in which Virginia’s Tobacco Commission, Microsoft, and the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Company utilize unused portions of the television broadcast spectrum to push out high-quality wireless broadband. So far, more than 100 households have been connected, and the number could reach 1,000 by year’s end.

“Under this innovative public-private program, Virginia’s share of the cost is $500,000, leverage private investment for a total investment of $1 million,” states the Northam plan. “This commonwealth should look to replicate this successful program across rural Virginia.”

How so? He would pull together disparate broadband initiatives across the commonwealth under the direction of a cabinet official “who will be responsible for getting more people connected.” Northam also advocates legislation similar to that adopted in Minnesota that creates a clear set of metrics, including upload and download speeds, to evaluate broadband access. Whatever else you say about these proposals, it doesn’t sound like they will break the bank.

Expanding the University of Virginia-Wise. Northam proposes increasing the educational offerings of the University of Virginia-Wise to encompass high-need, high-growth disciplines such as cybersecurity, unmanned aerial systems, energy, and computer engineering and programs. Expanding UVa-Wise would cost about $15 million initially, Northam says, with a possibility of scaling up funding over time.

We have a unique opportunity … to transform UVA-Wise into an international destination for students and researchers. This will have a tremendous effect on the regional economy because when you can attract students and top talent from around the world for research and development, grants will follow. And with grants and applied research, business opportunities will soon follow. And structured correctly, these businesses will not only start up in Southwest Virginia, but they will remain and grow.

The idea of creating “innovation districts” around college campuses is a hot one right now, and anyone who has seen the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center can readily understand the potential for economic development near college campuses. But Tech is the top research university in the state. Whether its success can be replicated on even a modest scale by a tiny, largely unknown newcomer is questionable. Tech has invested hundreds of millions, maybe billions, of dollars, over decades building academic programs, hiring star faculty, recruiting graduate students, and assembling the administrative infrastructure it takes to win research contracts.

Competing for research dollars is tough. Well established institutions such as Old Dominion University and the College of William & Mary have seen their research programs falter in recent years. It is a stretch to suggest that a $15 million investment in Wise would spark the miraculous transformation that Northam describes.

Startup tax plan. To help attract and retain new business in rural and economically depressed regions of Virginia, Northam proposes a “zero BPOL and merchant’s capital tax for new startup and small businesses .. for the first two years. This will drive economic activity and startups to rural areas, and result in no loss in existing revenue to local governments.” Once local businesses take root, they will start paying taxes — a win-win.

It’s good to see a Democratic Party candidate advocating tax cuts! But the proposal lacks crucial detail. BPOL and merchant’s capital taxes are local taxes. How does Northam propose eliminating those taxes for two years? Will the state just command localities to change their ordinances? Will the state reimburse them for lost revenue? Does he have the remotest idea of what the initiative would cost? Finally, while the BPOL and merchant’s capital taxes are near the top of the list of things that small businesses in Virginia hate, is there any body of evidence suggesting that a mere two-year reprieve will stimulate more startups?

There’s more to Northam’s plan, but the other proposals, which address workforce development, are statewide in nature and don’t address peculiarly rural issues. So, I won’t dwell on them here.

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about this plan is that Northam isn’t making extravagant promises that he can’t keep. These narrow-bore proposals won’t exactly spark a rural Renaissance, but for the most part, they seem politically and fiscally feasible.

Virginia Beach, Emerging World-Class Data Hub

Speaking of Virginia Beach…. Here’s a more promising approach to economic development than building arenas in the hope of wrangling big-name concerts and basketball tourneys for 30 years into the future. Reports the Virginian-Pilot:

A Dutch company wants to create a new data center park to draw the likes of Snapchat, IBM and Uber. NxtVn will spend $1.5 billion to $2 billion to build a hub off General Booth Boulevard to attract companies that seek high-capacity connections from the U.S. to Europe.

The company also plans to invest in a third trans-Atlantic high-speed data cable – Midgardsormen – that would link Virginia Beach to a data center park in Eemshaven, Netherlands.

This news follows an announcement made last year that a consortium including Facebook, Microsoft and Telefonica would build a 4,000-mile trans-Atlantic cable capable of transmitting 160 terabytes of data per second, the first transoceanic fiber cable station linking to the Mid-Atlantic. The existence of these two transoceanic cables, plus a third connecting Brazil and Virginia Beach, could spur development of the city into one of the nation’s largest data-center hubs.

How has Virginia Beach scored this economic-development coup? By handing out subsidies and tax breaks? No, by tending to basics. Writes the Pilot:

Over the past two years, the Virginia Beach Broadband Task Force has laid out steps that appeal to technology-driven companies, including advancements to a high-speed fiber optic network connecting municipal buildings and laying a fiber ring across the city, said Councilman Ben Davenport, chair and founder of the task force.

“We have worked with Dominion Virginia Power to make sure all power requirements could be met at these sites, which is very important because these data centers are huge power users,” said Davenport, who said that when NxtVn was told about the task force’s work on the fiber network, “this sealed the deal.”

There is no mention in the Pilot article of how much it cost to lay that fiber ring across the city. Perhaps the expenditure represents an implicit subsidy for broadband companies like NxtVn. If so, the project certainly appears to be paying off. I’m willing to wager that the Return on Investment is vastly superior to payback from an events arena.

(Hat tip: Paul Yoon)

Logging on from the Boonies

Rural broadband in Virginia could stand some improvement.

Rural broadband in Virginia could stand some improvement.

by S.E. Warwick

Last December, the RUOnlineVA statewide, broadband-demand survey reported that “23 percent of respondents have no option for fixed internet access and 48 percent rely on technologies that are too slow or expensive to support critical applications.”

These statistics reflect conditions not only in rural southwest Virginia, but just a few miles from the affluent Short Pump area of Henrico County. Many Goochland County residents crawl along the information superhighway at horse and buggy speed, if they can get on at all.

The dearth of rural broadband hinders economic development and hobbles educational initiatives in much of Virginia. Goochland was recognized as an Apple Distinguished Program in 2015-2017 for its iPad initiative in elementary and middle schools. Yet students who live in areas without strong Internet connectivity cannot take full advantage of the program.

Former Goochland Superintendent of Schools, James Lane, who took the top job in Chesterfield last year, declared that the digital divide between students with ready access to broadband and those without may be the prime civil rights issue of the 21st century.

Home buyers and Richmond-based Realtors unfamiliar with Goochland assume, often to their regret, that the  county has broadband access. In some places, it is not available at any price.

Comcast is the only wired broadband provider with a significant presence in Goochland. It covers a small portion of the county’s approximately 289 square miles, mostly in the relatively densely populated eastern and central parts.

Those who have access to Comcast are grateful for its presence. Even though there is high demand for service, the company resists expansion, citing the high cost of running lines to widely separated homes. Over the past few years, several subdivisions located near existing cable infrastructure have ponied up considerable sums to bring Comcast into their neighborhoods. In other areas, Comcast runs the lines at its own expense. Why the company puts its own money into one and not the other remains a mystery.

Other Internet options in Goochland include satellite and Verizon wireless. These are expensive and less satisfactory than a wired connection. It is not unusual for a family to spend $200 per month or more for speeds and data limits do not let them fully utilize Internet offerings.

Manuel Alvarez, Jr., a member of the Goochland Board of Supervisors, ran for office in 2011 on a pledge to expand rural broadband. He recruited Goochlanders with information technology expertise to study the issue and make recommendations.

The results were disheartening. A preliminary estimate of laying fiber optic cable throughout the county came in at a whopping $14.2 million in 2012 dollars. Goochland supervisors have expressed little interest in spending tax dollars on Internet expansion or getting into the Internet business. They would prefer private-sector providers to fill the void.

Goochland County now encourages developers to exploit existing utility connections in the planning stages of new communities. It has offered space on existing towers and water tanks to wireless providers, but, so far has no takers.

Each year, Goochland asks its General Assembly delegation for help in rural broadband expansion.

A bill introduced this year, HB 2108, initially had the opposite intent. The Virginia Broadband Deployment Act protected major players by requiring upstart broadband providers to reveal the ingredients of any “secret sauce” proprietary technology they planned to use to fill the coverage gaps, a sure way to discourage competition. The final, diluted version of this legislation, which has passed both the House and Senate, addresses transparency in setting rates.

Alvarez was one of many local officials representing rural areas who objected to this bill. “If the cable companies want to expand business in Goochland nobody is stopping them,” he said. “In fact, I could not encourage them more. They should not keep others or the locality from leveraging infrastructure to connect more citizens.”

Goochland continues to investigate strategies for countywide broadband expansion. Given the challenges of settlement patterns, topography, and existing infrastructure, this will likely not be a “one size fits all” solution. Options under consideration include easing or eliminating regulation where possible; pursuing grant funding; and entering advantageous public/private partnerships.

Rapid changes in technology should let market forces, not arbitrary legislation, choose the “who and how” of broadband expansion going forward.

S.E. Warwick, a Goochland resident, publishes the “Goochland on My Mind” blog. For years, she has been the only journalist regularly covering Goochland board of supervisor meetings.

Virginia Is for Lovers, Not Lobbyists

by Christopher Mitchell

Pop quiz: Should the state create or remove barriers to broadband investment in rural Virginia? Trick question. The answer depends very much on who you are – an incumbent telephone company or someone living every day with poor connectivity.

If you happen to be a big telephone company like CenturyLink or Frontier, you have already taken action. You wrote a bill to effectively prevent competition, laundered it through the state telephone lobbying trade organization, and had it sponsored by Del. Byron, R-Forest, in the General Assembly. That was after securing tens of millions of dollars from the federal government to offer an Internet service so slow it isn’t even considered broadband anymore. Government is working pretty well for you.

If you are a business or resident in the year 2017 without high quality Internet access, you should be banging someone’s door down – maybe an elected official, telephone/electric co-op, or your neighbor to organize a solution. You need more investment, not more barriers. Government isn’t working quite as well for you.

Rural Virginia is not alone. Small towns and farming communities across America are recognizing that they have to take action. The big cable and telephone companies are not going to build the networks rural America needs to retain and attract businesses. The federal government was essential in bringing electricity and basic phone service to everyone. But when it came to broadband, the big telephone companies had a plan to obstruct and prevent and plenty of influence in D.C.

When the Federal Communications Commission set up the Connect America Fund, they began giving billions of dollars to the big telephone companies in return for practically nothing. By 2020, these companies have to deliver a connection doesn’t even qualify as broadband. CenturyLink advertises 1000/1000 Mbps in many urban areas but gets big subsidies to deliver 10/1 Mbps in rural areas. Rural America has been sold out.

If you are a big cable or telephone company, you have a lot of influence in the federal and state capitals. But at the local level, your elected officials are more accountable to you because their decisions have a more immediate impact on their constituents’ lives.

Remember that as the General Assembly considers a bill from the telephone company lobbyists to limit your local governments from building networks. Places like Danville, Martinsville, and the Roanoke Valley have thoroughly upset the big cable and telephone companies by investing in new fiber-optic networks and opening them to any Internet Service Provider that wanted to compete for subscribers.

Danville and Martinsville have been doing this for years, with incredible results. The job gains are remarkable, particularly in areas hard hit by the decline of tobacco and manufacturing. Consider Danville, where the network was started with a loan from the electric utility. The network has made money every year for the community while also enriching the tax base. Existing businesses have become more competitive, new businesses came to town, and the community attracted more foreign direct investment.

They also created something else – a good example for communities that need better access. But the big monopolies are striking back using their strongest asset – lobbying. Virginia is already one of the 20 states that limit local authority to build networks. Now the state could make it even harder or impossible for communities to make these investments.

Consider the shareholders of CenturyLink and Frontier. They demand a good return on their investment. In return for some federal subsidies, they will invest the bare minimum in Virginia’s small towns. They count on the lack of choice in the market (i.e. monopoly power) to protect them from the frustration of local businesses and residents.

Local governments also have to listen to their shareholders – the businesses and residents that demand better Internet access to do business, get a quality education, and even enjoy modern entertainment. Local leaders actually live in these communities, unlike the executives or shareholders from the big companies.

If all of Virginia is to thrive, local governments must be free to invest in the modern infrastructure that their local businesses and residents need. Where existing providers meet that need, the local businesses and residents aren’t going to demand a municipal solution. But that decision should be made locally, not by powerful lobbyists swaying the legislature.

Christopher Mitchell is the Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis. He is on Twitter @communitynets.

CIT Maps Highlight Gaps in Virginia Bandwidth

Norfolk map of fiber optic coverage

Norfolk fiber optic coverage. Blue = coverage, white = no coverage.

The Center for Innovative Technology has announced an upgrade to its Virginia Broadband Availability Map, which allows users to search by address or zip code where broadband services are available and to overlay the broadband data with other data such as population and vertical assets.

I have given the map a quick spin and have drawn one quick, superficial conclusion. Either there are some unforgivable gaps in broadband coverage — the cities of Norfolk and Roanoke look like fiber-free zones — or there are unforgivable gaps in the map’s database.

Map of Roanoke fiber optic coverage

City of Roanoke fiber optic coverage

The two maps in this post display “fiber optic wireline coverage,” as a proxy for high-capacity broadband. (The database also maps copper lines, cable, and four categories of wireless.) As I expected, the urban core of the Richmond and Northern Virginia metropolitan areas are blanketed in fiber-optic cable. But Norfolk and Roanoke appear as fiber deserts. Is it possible that two of the largest, densest cities in Virginia are captive to local cable monopolies for their high-broadband Internet?

— JAB