Home George Hogshead: Broadband access is essential in rural Virginia communities
Economy, Politics

George Hogshead: Broadband access is essential in rural Virginia communities

broadband internet
(© Proxima Studio – stock.adobe.com)

I have always had a fondness for rural Virginia. My wife and I both grew up here in Highland County but left almost immediately after graduating high school. The jobs were in the cities, so that’s where we went; first to Blacksburg for college, and then to Charlotte, N.C., for work. We weren’t the only ones. Over the years, we saw friends, classmates, and cousins all leave to follow work. But in recent years, we’ve seen that trend take a turn. We moved back in 2015, and in my recent role as Chair of the Highland County Economic Development Authority, I’ve seen evidence of families returning to our area and young people staying put. I attribute this change to two main factors: an increase in remote work options after the pandemic, and the presence of quality, reliable broadband internet in our rural community.

I don’t take broadband access for granted. The unique beauty of Shenandoah and our spectacular mountain terrain make this a wonderful place to live – and a tough place to undertake major infrastructure projects. Many rural Virginia communities still live without reliable internet access. This lack of access creates a culture of internet have and have-nots: it impacts home prices, educational opportunities, health outcomes, and employment options.

We are fortunate that our elected representatives know this and have taken steps to improve broadband access around the commonwealth. President Biden worked with Congress to pass the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) in 2021. The legislation included $65 billion in funding for efforts to close the digital divide, over $1 billion of which came here to Virginia. The President has made it clear that he is committed to expanding broadband access to all remaining unserved and underserved areas of the country.

But while our elected officials are doing their part for rural broadband, administrators in Washington are putting those efforts at risk. Regulators at the Department of Commerce, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have taken an increasingly aggressive approach to broadband regulation, which threatens the good work to expand broadband to rural communities around Virginia. These regulators are trying to consolidate government control over the internet. They want to be able to decide who can use the internet and for what and dictate what price broadband companies can charge for their services.

This overregulation will have a concrete impact on internet service providers’ ability to build out broadband projects in rural communities like mine. Before moving home to Virginia, I worked for years as an electrical engineer. I know how challenging it can be to build projects at this scale. If the government moves forward with this heavy-handed regulation, broadband providers will not bid on complex broadband expansion in rural areas. Our neighbors will be left waiting once again, as areas with quality broadband access continue to attract new residents and pull further and further ahead.

We’ve been left waiting before. Fifteen years ago, President Obama committed to expanding rural broadband. Congress passed the $4 billion Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP). Then, as now, the NTIA set overly-prescriptive requirements for the program. In the end, major ISPs chose not to bid on the projects. Grants went to smaller, less experienced companies who were often unable to live up to their promises and rural communities were left behind – again.

Areas like Highland County should be able to be the best of all worlds. Our children should never have to make the choice between staying in their homes, in the communities they love, or leaving just to have a successful career. We should be attracting young families, small businesses, and tourists eager to bring their resources to our community. But that future is only possible with reliable access to quality broadband. We cannot let Washington bureaucrats torpedo our chances with overly burdensome regulations. Broadband has the opportunity to be a lifeblood for rural Virginia. It’s time for regulators to get out of the way of progress, and for rural Virginians to reap the benefits of reliable broadband access.

George Hogshead is a resident of Highland County.



Have a guest column, letter to the editor, story idea or a news tip? Email editor Chris Graham at [email protected]. Subscribe to AFP podcasts on Apple PodcastsSpotifyPandora and YouTube.