Broadband Done Right
The Old Dominion Model
“Let me tell you how I decided to come live on the rural frontier,” starts Joan Minor.
Minor is, improbably, the official blogger for Rose Hill, Va., a tiny mountain town tucked deep in Virginia’s tobacco and coal-mining country, who came to live there because of the state’s unique broadband policies. “You know the magazine Fast Company? They did this issue on people who work from all these bizarre locations—like a monastery on an island somewhere,” she explains with a hearty laugh. “What all those places had was a broadband hookup. And that was my inspiration.”
Minor moved to her Appalachian oasis after catching word that high-speed Internet was on its way. As recently as two years ago, as Minor tells it, getting online to run her grant-writing business required actually meeting the Internet halfway. “I used to drive over the hills for 45 minutes to Duffield because that was the farthest point west the Internet went.”
Virginians are clustering, but not always by packing themselves into easily wired urban areas.
But while the federal government limps along with its fortune-cookie message of a broadband policy—“The market will provide”—in Virginia the global communications network is being pulled and cajoled into every corner of the state where Virginians want and need to get connected. This approach not only gives the state a much needed economic shot in the arm. It also demonstrates a realist approach to bringing broadband to Americans where they make their homes, giving them the tools to live the lives they want to lead.
This is Virginia’s broadband-development model—or more precisely, a collection of models that marry together state, local and federal funds with private industry participation, creating new jobs in parts of the state that have been losing them for decades. What’s more, the Old Dominion model is proving itself up to the task of delivering demanding online applications, much need medical care and training, and small business opportunities to Joan Minor and millions of others in the commonwealth. The approach underpinning the successful rollout of high-speed connectivity represents technology policy innovation at its best.
Over the past decade, more than $300 million has been invested in building out Virginia’s broadband infrastructure. Most of those funds have come from E-Rate, the federal program designed to bring technology to America’s classrooms and libraries. But a considerable chunk, about 20 percent, came from the Virginia Tobacco Commission, the state agency which distributes the proceeds from a 1998 class-action lawsuit against the tobacco industries. In Virginia, those funds are earmarked for the development of the 41 counties and towns hardest hit by the decline in tobacco production.
Sitting Governor Tim Kaine’s immediate predecessor, Mark R. Warner, oversaw the establishment of the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Cooperative, a non-profit cooperative aimed at bringing high-speed Internet to Southside and Southwest Virginia. Funded by $34 million in VTC funds and a $6 million supplemental grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce, the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Cooperative connected 700 miles of broadband cable. Critically important is that this backhaul is open-access—available for use by multiple providers, which reduces start-up costs and makes the business math work on providing access to homes and businesses in the region.
In the case of Rose Hill, situated in the part of the state covered by the Tobacco Commission, Congressman Rick Boucher worked to bring five miles of “last-mile” access to the town by leveraging $100,000 in VTC funds to pull in a half-million dollar federal grant from the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service. Lee County, home to Rose Hill, kicked in additional funding.
But roughly half of Virginia falls outside the Tobacco Commission area, and in those places the state has served as visionary and coordinator—determining where broadband is still needed, highlighting innovations in both wireline and wireless technologies, and identifying useful broadband-enabled applications. Perhaps most importantly, both the Warner and Kaine Administrations have embraced the role of identifying and replicating models that have worked to bring broadband to Virginians.
In the case of King George County, for example, the estimated $750,000 in start-up costs came from a county-backed loan, while local officials drew from the state’s decade of broadband experience in forming a private-public partnership with a provider experienced in just the sort of wireless technologies best suited for the local topography.Richmond has embraced its role at the cutting edge of broadband policy. The cabinet-level Secretary of Technology post is one of the few of its kind in the nation. The state maintains an office capable of providing detailed data on where in the state broadband is available and where it’s not, valuable business information that telecom companies are often loath to provide to government entities.
And last summer, with much fanfare, Governor Kaine appointed a Broadband Roundtable—headed by former Governor Warner and Technology Secretary Aneesh Chopra, and charged with the mission of creating “blueprints” that local communities can use in a statewide effort to bring affordable broadband to every business in the commonwealth by 2010. The Broadband Roundtable’s final report is due on Governor Kaine’s desk by the end of this summer.
Virginia is in a state of demographic flux, with the commonwealth’s growing population of 7.5 million rushing headfirst towards metropolitanism. But that’s not to say the state is becoming citified. Virginians are clustering, but not always by packing themselves into easily wired urban areas. And, as with Rose Hill, the state still retains its deeply rural pockets.
All of which makes bringing broadband ubiquity to Virginia challenging, but the desire is certainly there. Aneesh Chopra, Virginia’s Secretary of Technology, recalls hearing about when the town of Rose Hill called a meeting several years ago to hash over the need for indoor plumbing. Only a handful of town folk turned up, he says. But a recent meeting about laying high-speed fiber-optic cable lines pulled in more than a hundred— in a town where the 2000 census found 714 full-timers. “That’s just how viscerally people feel about broadband,” he says.
“How do we get broadband to a community where the private market isn’t going to go anytime soon?”
The nuts and bolts of how broadband came to Rose Hill is a story of leveraging local funds—cash from the state Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission charged with developing Virginia’s tobacco country—to draw in federal grant monies from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s rural Internet program. The Rose Hill model is being replicated down the road a piece in Ewing (population 436), and the even smaller coal-mining community of St. Charles (population 159).
As Karen Jackson, the state official heading up Virginia’s broadband efforts, puts it, “If you’re up a holler and around two mountains, you’re still going to be hard to reach.” Which is why the state puts such an effort into wiring all of its rural communities, she adds. (See sidebar for a detailed look at the policies and programs behind the wiring of Virginia.)
And that’s how broadband came to Rose Hill, but it’s certainly not the only model on view in Virginia. Leave Rose Hill, head north on Route 81, and eight hours later you’ll arrive near the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in King George County. The county is home to the Navy’s celebrated Dahlgren base and is equidistant to Richmond and Washington DC, making it attractive settling grounds for many Virginians. And King George’s population is indeed exploding, having grown by a third since the start of the decade.
Yet the county remains low-density, and hard to network. “You can live on 20 or 30 acres of land out here, but there’s no broadband,” says Brian David, King George’s administrator. “People who work at the base or for military contractors like Lockheed [Martin] drive home and only have dial-up. Newcomers are coming in from Northern Virginia, Charles County, and Prince George’s County in Maryland, and are frustrated. It’s a quality of life issue. The question is,” says David, “how do we get broadband to a community where the private market isn’t going to go anytime soon?”
Just last month, King George County settled on an answer: lower the capital investment by making use of the municipality’s water towers and water tanks, and use its stellar credit rating to borrow and then re-lend the proceeds to a start-up broadband provider with expertise in modern wireless technologies. King George is betting that with a little public sector creativity it can indeed meet its broadband needs. Nearby Spotsylvania is now copying the King George plan.
Or consider how the mountain towns of Danville and Martinsville, lying smack in the middle of the state’s southern border with North Carolina, drew new jobs to their cities via new broadband lines. One of the commonwealth’s earliest adopters of new ways of working, the state’s Department of Taxation, recently took a chance on a pilot telework program, opening up customer service jobs anywhere broadband now reaches—including more than 50 slots allotted to Danville and Martinsville.
“They were absolutely astounded at what they got,” recalls Jackson. “These are not high-paying jobs, but the sort of people who applied are the sort of people who in the Richmond area are already employed. But here the people can stay home. They don’t have to drive into Richmond to get to work. The department got to pick from the cream of the crop and the attrition rate has been next to nothing.”
Broadband for Health and Education
The delivery of broadband to Virginia over the past decade is akin in many ways to the New Deal mobilization to bring electricity to the American countryside. Rural electrification of the ‘30s bridged the divide between rural and urban America, shaping the destiny of many an American, including a Georgian boy named Jimmy Carter. The former president has called the arrival of electricity “the event that transformed our family’s lives most profoundly.” For one thing, artificial light opened up the possibility of reading in those dark hours before morning chores of after the evening meal, a tremendous boon for eager learners such as Carter.
But lighting up the American countryside shares with broadband the “up a holler” problem—low-density is the enemy of networking. In the dreams of a central planner, the most efficient way forward for a state like Virginia might be to turn into one big Dulles Corridor, that high-tech cluster where short hops from one house to the next school to the next industrial park make it no real challenge to string the Internet from one place to the next. Some Virginians, however, want to live outside of suburban tech clusters but remain employed in the wired world; others have never lived in urban or suburban communities and would rather have the wired world come to them.
But the change wrought by broadband isn’t just about neat apps and educational outreach.
So the trick is to network them in a way that spreads broadband’s benefits even as the Internet itself evolves into an ever-more-bandwidth-hungry medium. Says Jackson, “there was a time that as long as you had dial-up and weren’t getting dropped, people were pretty happy. That’s changed.” More critically, Chopra describes demanding medical- records software deployed at health centers serving Virginia’s neediest areas that can’t survive the dial-up link. “People are literally dying because they can’t get the broadband they need to run the software,” He explains. Cutting-edge software applications may demand enormous pipe, but today even successful surfing calls for 200Kbps.
Asked how the people of Rose Hill are using their new broadband hookups, blogger Joan Minor points to people seeking medical information. “We have a high disability rate,” She notes. Indeed, it’s more than twice the national average. “And we don’t have access to large medical facilities,” she adds. “So we have people getting information that they then use to know when to go to our local doctor and when to leave the area.”
In fact, on the health front, Rose Hill has to contend with a double whammy. Its residents confront high rates of sickness and disease. And the area is home to too few medical professionals to treat them. “We have a hard time getting health professionals to live and work here,” admits Minor.
High-speed broadband attacks the problem from three angles. The first is by reducing the need to have medical experts living and working in the communities they serve; via a high-speed video hookup, a pediatric cardiologist at Richmond’s Virginia Commonwealth University can monitor the progress of a struggling newborn and deliver instant guidance to local physicians.
The second is distance-learning programs, in which medical residents are trained to do more basic procedures—an approach international aid groups like Doctors without Borders are using to meet many far-flung health needs. And the third way broadband can reduce illness in a community like Rose Hill is simple but powerful: opening up career alternatives to the dangerous and draining jobs such as coal mining, logging, and tobacco farming that contribute to Appalachia’s poor health.
“Virginia Tech has one of the highest-speed computing platforms in the world, explains Virginia Tech’s Dr. Jeffrey Reed, an engineer who heads up the school’s Wireless @ Virginia Tech research program. “But anytime you have high-speed computing, you limit its capability if you don’t have high-speed broadband.” But the change wrought by broadband isn’t just about neat apps and educational outreach.
Chopra, for one, is well aware that wringing out the full value of the Internet is going to take cultural shifts. Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s OpenCourseWare initiative, for example, is at the bleeding edge of Internet education, with the institution placing course materials free online, making them accessible to anyone with a broadband hookup from Roanoke to Rawalpindi. Along those lines, Virginia is working with Old Dominion University in coastal Norfolk to host introductory nursing classes online, says Chopra. “We don’t know as a society how HR departments will value that you’ve taken 30 hours of MIT coursework.”
Chopra, who sees himself as Virginia’s high-tech storyteller and cheerleader, is hopeful companies will take chances on workers whose credentials are less than traditional. And inspired by the thinking that wiz-bang gadgets and apps can only serve to prove the value of high-throughput connectivity, a team of researchers headed by Virginia Tech’s Dr. Reed and Old Dominion University’s Dr. Nancy Cooley are working to detail a new set of broadband-enabled innovations for a report due on Governor Tim Kaine’s desk this summer.
Keeping Virginia Rural
Asked how the people of Rose Hill are using their new broadband hookups, blogger Joan Minor has quick answers. “eBay is a big one,” she says. “People across all economic lines here are using eBay. Franchisees are ecstatic to be able to communicate with headquarters, who had been telling them they were going to pull their franchise if they didn’t get broadband.
A recent post on Joan Minor’s Rose Hill Blog also highlights Black Bear Blast, a gathering of scientists and locals in Cumberland Gap National Park. Another details Kite Day, a local tradition tracing its roots “way back yonder when,” says Minor. She’s delighted to promote these rural get-togethers, the better to help preserve the small town’s unique way of life. “You look at this town’s demographics, and they’re depressing,” she says. “The people of this town are poor, and they’re sick, and they’re old. Our best and brightest have been leaving and not coming back until they retire. But there’s still a whole lot of pride in these communities. One of the points of the blog is to celebrate that, so the younger generations will want to stay. Now they can figure out how to use the Internet to find a way to stay.”
From Rose Hill to Danville to King George County, the freedom of choice that broadband delivers for Virginians to better their job prospects, their businesses, and their health defines a broadband policy that works. It’s a practical approach aptly summed by Karen Jackson: “We try to find what the barriers are,” she says, “and then we knock them down.”
Nancy Scola is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, NY.
Comments on this article