Powhatan County still faced with uphill battle for broadband

Dr. Christopher Ali

POWHATAN – The Powhatan County Board of Supervisors recently took another in-depth look at the critical problem the county continues to face with lack of broadband access and the difficulties inherent in getting it.

During its meeting on Wednesday, June 10, the board listened to a special presentation from Dr. Christopher Ali, an assistant professor in the Department of Media Studies for the University of Virginia, where he focuses on rural broadband and public policy. The board organized the meeting as an opportunity for supervisors and citizens to discuss challenges and opportunities related to rural broadband and work to develop realistic plans and goals.

At the start of the two-hour meeting, Ali gave an overview of a locality’s options regarding internet access, the pros and cons of each, and why gaining access to quality service remains such a challenge for counties like Powhatan.

He talked about the ways broadband positively impact a community through economic development, education, health, civic engagement, public safety, and quality of life, and how all of those are negatively affected when broadband is lacking.

And the many people who spoke up during the public comment periods demonstrated that there is definitely a lack of broadband. Residents brought up a wide range of issues related to the topic: children struggling to do homework; adults struggling to work; paying exorbitant rates for poor internet service; distance learning being a continued part of the 2020-2021 school year; real estate prices being adversely affected by lack of internet access; a rising number of people needing the capability to work from home, and that even post-COVID-19, companies may keep many employees working from home.

Bad data

One of the key goals of the meeting was to cover the very tricky issue of why Powhatan and other rural communities struggle so much getting broadband. Some of the points were ones those who have been following the issue had heard before – that internet service providers serve the areas with the best potential for a return on their investment, and according to them, rural America is too sparsely populated in terms of numbers and density.

This was already a problem as people struggle to exist in an increasingly technological world, and the COVID-19 restrictions that have seen so many more people trying to operate from home has exacerbated the issue and made it painfully apparent, he said.

“If the wire doesn’t pass by your home or your place of residence, there is nothing you can do tomorrow to get that wire in the ground or strung aerially. It needs to be a community decision if you were going to use public money to do it, for instance, or it needs to be a market decision,” Ali said. “What we know is that the market is not interested purely in serving areas like Powhatan because they don’t see the return on investment. They don’t see it as a social good, as a public good. And it really breaks my heart to have to say something like this.”

Ali pointed out that counties like Powhatan are also fighting against bad data, which can be a hindrance when localities go after grants or funding opportunities. To start, the definition of broadband as set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is an “always on” connection of 25 MBPS (megabits per second) download and 3 MBPS upload, which is a 2015 definition that Ali called totally outdated.

This definition does not encompass the United States’ current broadband needs or usage: average download speed is 135 MBPS; average upload speed is 52 MBPS, and average daily data usage is 12 GBPS (up to 15 GBPS during the pandemic). This definition also heavily favors downloads over uploads, which is a hindrance to businesses. Downloading is generally about consumption, such as video streaming platforms, while uploading is about production, such as business transactions, video conferencing, and homework.

Localities are also hamstrung by the fact that broadband data is self-reported by the industry and then collected at the “census block level,” Ali said. For example, if one building in a block is served, the entire block is considered served. And even then, served does not mean “currently served” but rather “can be served” within 10 business days. Internet service providers also only have to report their advertised speeds, not actual speeds.

“We pay an incredible amount of money in this country for poor service,” Ali said at one point.

How does all this impact Powhatan County? According to the FCC’s fixed broadband deployment map, Powhatan County is 100 percent served with broadband (at the minimum 25/3 definition) and 81.58 percent of the county is served by at least three providers. This map, which was last updated in June 2019, can be found by search on https://broadbandmap.fcc.gov.

Ali shook his head in disbelief as he said, “100 percent served. Otherwise I don’t know what I am doing here for y’all on broadband.”

Ali pointed out that if you adjust the map settings to remove satellite offerings, 18.42 percent of the county does not have access to broadband and 76.73 percent has access to only one provider.

Searching for solutions

At the beginning of the meeting, Bret Schardein, interim county administrator, said that Powhatan made a joint application along with Goochland County and Firefly Broadband through the USDA Re-Connect program. If awarded, that project would serve about 1,500 homes in Powhatan with high-speed broadband internet. Generally, the coverage area is in areas west of Route 522 and Route 13 and some areas north of Route 711.

“This would be about a $7 million investment by Firefly. Currently, we have not proposed a local match from the county so there would be no local money required. We have talked about providing some space on county-owned land for a small shelter for their equipment,” he said.

The county should find out in late fall 2020 if the grant has been awarded, Schardein said. If it were granted, construction would begin in 2021 and it would be a two-year buildout.

During his presentation, Ali talked briefly about a new FCC program called the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which will use $20.4 billion over 10 years to help unserved areas. However, it is still relying on outdated maps, meaning that some communities will be left out. It also has relatively low data caps that can be set by internet service providers.

Most problematic, he said, is that areas that have received USDA Re-Connect funding or state funding such as Virginia’s VATI are ineligible, “so the FCC is undermining states here.”

Ali pointed out that 5G and low earth orbital satellites, both of which are being touted right now as future solutions for the nation, are unlikely to help Powhatan or other rural communities.

T-Mobile is closest to “nationwide” deployment of 5G but because of the frequencies it is using (600Mhz) the user experience will be akin to 4G LTE speeds, he said. Deployment and initiation of low earth orbital satellites have been delayed, largely because of COVID-19. Counties should be planning their broadband strategies without factoring in 5G and LEOs, he recommended.

Next steps

Ali was hesitant during his presentation and the questions that followed to give some specific answers regarding Powhatan’s situation and what it should do next because every county is different, and he said its solutions will be highly individualized.

However, there are steps every community can take, several of which Powhatan has already been trying, including meetings and conversations, exploring funding options such as Re-Connect while understanding there are limitations, and exploring partnerships with private internet service providers. He also talked about exploring public funding options, and talking to state and federal representatives to change restrictions.

He did add that as the county pursues its next steps, “any option without fiber is useless” because of the speeds needed for current consumption and the limitations of other kinds of technologies.

Something Ali recommend local residents do to help was visit www.Speedtest.net to test their broadband speed. Localities can pay to access the data to see how internet service providers are performing in their area.

Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.

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