When I was growing up, there was a band named Black Oak Arkansas and one of their songs was called “When Electricity Came to Arkansas.”
Neither the band nor the song was very good, but we didn’t know that back in those days. We just knew it was loud and something our parents probably disapproved of, which were the two main criteria that made the song popular with a certain subset of us at Montevideo High School in Rockingham County.
More recently, the Drive-By Truckers – another band springing out of the South – had a song called “TVA” that tells the story of what the Tennessee Valley Authority meant.
The key passage, written by Jason Isbell, who has since gone on to a successful solo career:
My granddaddy told me when he was just seven or so
His daddy lost work and they didn’t have a row to hoe
Not too much to eat for seven boys and three girls;
All lived in a tent; bunch of sharecroppers versus the world
So his mama sat down, wrote a letter to FDR
‘En a couple days later, couple of county men came in a car
Rode out in the field, told his daddy to put down the plow
He helped build the dam, gave power to most of the South
Thank God for the TVA
When Roosevelt let us all work for an honest day’s pay
Thank God for the TVA
Let me assure you, “TVA” is a far better song than “When Electricity Came to Arkansas,” and Drive-By Truckers is a far better band. My point here, though, is not to critique rock bands but to underscore how the story of rural electrification in the 1930s still resonates in parts of our culture.
The economic necessity of bringing broadband to rural America has been likened to a modern-day rural electrification – and that brings me to my big news: I now have broadband internet.
Now, I realize for some of you city slickers, my excitement seems quaint, but that’s just one of the many ways that rural Virginia isn’t like the rest of Virginia. You’re living in a 5G world and we’re not getting any signal at all.
For years, the only internet I’ve had at my home in rural Botetourt County has been from a small hotspot through my cellphone provider. So yes, I’ve had some internet – just not very good internet. The telecom promised unlimited data but the speed was also throttled – slowed down – once we hit certain data thresholds. None of those were fast enough to do the kinds of things most of you take for granted. Netflix? No Netflix and chill here. Hulu? That’s just a hoop. Streaming of any kind? Well, there’s a small creek at the bottom of the hill, but that’s the only kind of streaming available.
The telecom’s hotspot was basically strong enough to surf the internet and send emails, and that’s about it. Then, when the pandemic hit and my employer – at the time, The Roanoke Times – had us work from home, I was burning through those monthly data thresholds in just a matter of days. We were mandated to work from home, yet working from home was basically impossible. Technically, yes, I had internet. For practical purposes, the internet I had was nearly worthless.
Whenever I mentioned this to someone in a more urban area, they were incredulous. “What about your cable company?” they’d ask.
“Dude,” I’d reply, “this is the country. There’s no cable company out here.”
Our television comes via a satellite dish, or it doesn’t come at all.
When I left The Roanoke Times to join Cardinal News, the big question wasn’t whether the venture would be sustainable. (That’s being answered every day, by the way: We started with about a dozen donors, now we have more than 1,000 – we’re hitting all our revenue targets months ahead of schedule. You can be one of them.) No, the big question was, how would I run an online news site with not much online access?
The answer: During the pretty days of last fall, I’d set up a lawn chair outside the Fincastle library and mooch off the Wi-Fi there. When winter came, I’d sit in my car, or sometimes go to the Mill Mountain Coffee and Tea shop in Daleville, about 11 miles away. I could do basic work from home, as long as the cats stayed off the keyboard, but to upload big photos or do any kind of Zoom meeting, it was either the library or the coffee shop. This was inconvenient, to be sure, but it gave us a good talking point: Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan made much of this when she wrote about us in February.
After a while, a buddy of mine who works in information technology suggested I join the Calyx Institute. It’s a nonprofit that, for complicated reasons, has access to part of the spectrum. As a nonprofit, Calyx couldn’t sell me internet service but, as a nonprofit, I could pay to join and I’d get a “free” hotspot. Technicalities. That hotspot was probably about as fast as what my old telecom hotspot was with one difference: Calyx doesn’t throttle. That makes it far more reliable. I still had to go to the library or coffee shop to upload certain files but at least I could do a Zoom meeting from home. As an interim measure, it was a godsend. Nonetheless, it still wasn’t real broadband. Some suggested I check out Starlink, the satellite-based internet provided by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. I know people in both Wise County and Grayson County who swear by it. I would have gone with that but Botetourt County administrator Gary Larrowe kept assuring me that fiber-based broadband was on the way in early 2022. And he was right.
In January some contractors for the Craig-Botetourt Electric Cooperative showed up at my house to string some fiber and install some weird-looking device on the telephone pole – the first step toward actual broadband. Last week, more contractors arrived and now, lo, I have joined the 21st century.
The Drive-By Truckers thanked Franklin Roosevelt for bringing electricity to their native rural Alabama (and other parts of the South). I’m no Jason Isbell, but I set out to credit whoever was responsible for bringing me rural internet. This column won’t be nearly as poetic as the song, but, I hope, informative.
The answer is complicated. I like complicated answers; others not so much. The main things to keep in mind are a) extending broadband to rural America, especially rural Virginia, has been a truly bipartisan exercise, even if different parties have different views of how that should be done, and b) it’s taken a combination of local, state and federal governments working together to do this.
We live in an era when we don’t have much faith in government, no matter who is in charge of it. Here, though, is an example of government actually getting something done, so let’s give credit where credit is due.
The basic fact to keep in mind is that internet providers are not government agencies. That’s a good thing, of course, but also means that rural broadband runs into some basic economic facts. It’s not profitable for companies to lay fiber in rural areas. The service might ultimately be profitable, but the infrastructure is cost-prohibitive – so to make rural broadband happen, we need government to subsidize it. That’s not the word that gets used, but that’s really what we’re talking about. Think about how difficult this makes the politics: Republicans, by their nature, aren’t keen to subsidize anything. And Democrats have seen their support in rural areas shrink to barely a shadow, so to make rural broadband happen, we need both parties to do something hard. Republicans have to work up the gumption to subsidize something and Democrats have to work up the gumption to pour a lot of money into parts of the country that won’t vote for them. Framed that way, I’m surprised any of this has happened, yet, to the credit of both parties, it has.
The federal government first started putting up money for rural broadband during Bill Clinton’s first term, as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which was described as the first major overhaul of telecommunications law in six decades. Two of the key players behind that bill were then-Reps. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke County, and Rick Boucher, D-Abingdon, both of whom were interested in technology issues (and both of whom are members of our community advisory committee, although committee members have no role in news decisions; see our policy). Somewhere in this great land of ours are people who should thank Boucher and Goodlatte for their internet service.
In Virginia, the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission was created in 1999 and funded with part of the state’s share of the master settlement against tobacco companies. It’s been paying for broadband expansion since almost the beginning.
If you’re in Southwest and Southside Virginia and have broadband service, you may need to thank the commission and the people who set that up: then-Gov. Jim Gilmore, then-Sen Charles Hawkins, R-Pittsylvania County, and then-Del. Whitt Clement, D-Danville. The Obama administration pledged to bring “true broadband [to] every community in America” and spent a lot of money trying to make that happen – $7.2 billion in his initial stimulus program went to broadband. In the end, though, that wasn’t nearly enough and President Barack Obama fell short of his goal. Still, some of that funding did extend the Mid-Atlantic Broadband line to Blacksburg, so a lot of people along the way should thank Obama for getting broadband as soon as they did.
Let’s jump ahead to more recent times: Virginia got into the rural broadband business in 2016 when then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe proposed $2.5 million for the newly created Virginia Telecommunications Initiative. The Republican-run General Assembly cut that to $1 million but, whatever the amount, that was the state’s first real investment in making rural broadband happen. The first grants went to projects in Albemarle, Augusta, Bland, Gloucester and Greensville counties. Before anyone jumps to some partisan conclusion, keep this in mind: While Virginia was putting up $1 million, the Republican legislature in Minnesota was putting up $35 million.
The 2017 governor’s race between Ralph Northam and Ed Gillespie was the first one where broadband was an issue. They had different ideas on how to do it but they both agreed on the ultimate goal: Everyone needs access to the internet just as everyone has access to electricity. Northam won, obviously, and he set a goal of achieving universal broadband within 10 years. From that modest $1 million beginning, Virginia was spending nearly $1 billion to make that happen. That’s probably not what Northam will be remembered for, though it certainly ought to be on the list.
Now let’s fast forward to even more recent history. Many electric utilities are in the process of upgrading their lines to “smart grid” technology. If utilities are already out there stringing new lines, why can’t we string internet fiber along with it? Good idea, but that requires changing the law. (Everything is complicated, and telecoms and utilities are both pretty regulated.) In 2019, Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County, sponsored legislation to allow the state’s two biggest investor-owned utilities – Appalachian Power and Dominion Power – to experiment with letting internet providers piggyback on their lines. Appalachian chose Grayson County as the place to start that program; Northam went to Independence to sign the legislation – conveniently in O’Quinn’s district. If you’re looking for an example of bipartisan cooperation, here’s one. (Brian Funk had this story about how the program is playing out in Grayson County.)
Still, not everyone in Virginia is covered by Appalachian and Dominion. Some are served by municipal broadband authorities. It would take a subsequent bill sponsored by Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, and then-Del. Hala Ayala, D-Prince William County, to get them covered. (If Ayala’s name rings a bell, it’s because she was her party’s unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor last year.) Meanwhile, much of rural Virginia is serviced by electric cooperatives, a legacy of rural electrification when investor-owned utilities either wouldn’t or couldn’t serve rural areas. I live in one of those areas; I’m in Craig-Botetourt Electric Cooperative territory.
In 2019, the same year that O’Quinn’s bill was being passed, the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative awarded Botetourt County almost $760,000 for fiber build-out in the county. That money was enough to allow Craig-Botetourt to reach one-third of its customers in Botetourt County. I was one not of those one-third, but hang on.
(Let me just say a word here about Larrowe, Botetourt’s county administrator, who has been gung-ho about getting broadband into Botetourt. Here’s someone who understands how the modern economy works, even if he has had to put up with me pestering him every few months about “where’s my broadband?” And, of course, no county administrator can do much without a supportive board of supervisors. For those of you following the politics, note that Botetourt has an all-Republican board. Supervisor Mac Scothorn, an eye doctor by day, has been one of the driving forces behind broadband in Botetourt.)
Now, back to the story: Electric co-ops operate by different rules than investor-owned utilities, so the enabling power for them wasn’t the General Assembly but the State Corporation Commission, the entity that regulates utilities in Virginia. In this case, Craig-Botetourt needed to incorporate a for-profit subsidiary that would be owned by a nonprofit cooperative. I’m sure many lawyers racked up some billable hours figuring all this out. The short version is there’s now an outfit called Bee Online Advantage.
In all, five Virginia co-ops have set up subsidiaries such as this. The other four are Central Virginia (based in Nelson County and serving all or parts of 14 counties), BARC (which covers all or parts of Bath, Alleghany, Augusta, Highland and Rockbridge counties), Prince George and Mecklenburg. (You may recall that earlier this year we ran a story about why Nelson County has the state’s highest percentage of remote workers. One of the reasons was Central Virginia’s broadband project. Lisa Provence wrote about how the arrival of broadband revolutionized things in Nelson.)
Craig-Botetourt’s first fiber started to be laid in early 2020. You may recall that something happened soon afterwards: the pandemic. That both snarled supply chains, delaying the arrival of key materials, and also highlighted just how important broadband coverage is.
The first trunk line in my part of the county was planned to go tantalizingly close to my house – about a mile away, on a different road – but may as well have been on Mars as far as I was concerned. I was still coaxing a weak signal out of my hotspot and traveling to the library and coffee shop more often than I wanted to.
Larrowe, the county administrator, kept telling me help was on the way, and it was.
Early in the pandemic – March 2020 – Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed into law the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, a $2.2 billion stimulus package. It passed the House 419-6 and the Senate 96-0. Every member of the Virginia delegation voted for it, so more bipartisan cooperation. About $6 million of that CARES Act funding came to Botetourt County, with about half of that dedicated to broadband expansion, according to Larrowe. (I messaged him using my fancy new internet and speedily got back a reply.) Of that, $776,437 went to Craig-Botetourt to complete that trunk line. “We received these funds because we were in a position to guarantee that we could complete the project within the defined timeline,” says co-op CEO Jeff Ahearn. “This was less than two months (November-December of 2020).”
With that trunk line in place, Craig-Botetourt could begin running other lines off of it. If you’re still thinking of the internet as an “information superhighway,” think of that trunk line as the interstate and those other lines being primary and secondary roads. My internet now comes from one of those.
Technically speaking, that line that now comes to my house was funded by Craig-Botetourt Electric Cooperative, “but was enabled by the [trunk line] project we completed at the end of 2020,” Ahearn tells me.
So who should I thank for this? Boucher and Goodlatte and others in Congress nearly three decades ago for that massive 1996 telecommunications bill that got the federal government into the business of helping build out rural networks? Clinton for signing it? Obama for making a Kennedyesque declaration about getting all of America on broadband even if his administration wasn’t able to make that happen? McAuliffe and the General Assembly for getting the state into paying for rural broadband expansion? Northam and a subsequent General Assembly for expanding those programs? The Craig-Botetourt board for wanting to get into the broadband business? (Certainly the board, for sure). The State Corporation Commission that allowed the co-op to do that? Trump and the Congress that passed the CARES Act that paid for the trunk line? Larrowe and a Botetourt County Board of Supervisors that has made using some of that money for broadband a priority? Or none of those since Craig-Botetourt’s subsidiary paid for the final line to my house (I suppose technically I’m paying for it through my future bills, which seem pretty reasonable, by the way)? That last option seems far too narrow and ignores all the work that went into making that last mile possible. To be on the safe side, I should probably thank all those people, right?
That will make it hard to write a song as succinct and catchy as “TVA.” But at least with my fancy new internet, I can now watch the video.