When I speak to civic groups, I’m often asked what we know about Cardinal News readers. (Yes, that’s a backhanded way of saying we’re available to come speak.)
We can guess several things with a high degree of certainty.
We can surmise that you’re serious-minded, because we can see which stories get traffic and which ones don’t. Generally speaking, policy-heavy stories do quite well, lighter features do not (which is why we don’t do many of those).
We know generally where our readers are – you’re all over the state. The biggest group is in the Roanoke Valley but most days second place is a three-way dogfight between Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads. When I hear from readers in those places, I always ask them why they’re reading us, since we’re here to cover Southwest and Southside. Their answer is almost invariably some version of: “You’re telling us about a part of the state we don’t know much about.”
We also know that our readers span the political spectrum, because I’ve heard from people from left to right and all points in between, although I wouldn’t dare hazard a guess at the percentages.
There’s one thing, though, that we know with absolute certainty: All of you are reading us online.
That’s an easy conclusion to draw, of course, since we have no print edition. We’re only online.
That means one thing: Every one of you reading this has a vested interest in the map that the Federal Communications Commission is trying to put together of broadband coverage in the United States.
You’d think that this would be a relatively easy undertaking. Telecommunications companies certainly know where they provide service, right? We’ve all seen ads for internet service providers that show off a fancy map of the United States where they purport to have more coverage than the other companies. That’s easy to do in general terms but, in practical terms, it’s a lot harder than that. When Evan Feinman was Gov. Ralph Northam’s broadband adviser, I remember him talking about how some telecoms weren’t eager to share what they considered proprietary information. And in rural areas, defining the edge of a service territory is sometimes a dicey proposition. Old Man McGrump lives way back up the hollow. Whose service territory is he in anyway?
When the concept of universal broadband was a dreamy and distant concept, these questions were more theoretical. The closer we get to actually achieving universal broadband, the more practical – and urgent – they become. Where, exactly, are the broadband gaps? In last year’s General Assembly, state Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, sponsored a bill to require each school board to determine which students don’t have broadband access and report that to the state. Nationally, the FCC has embarked on an even bigger undertaking: to compile a national map of which addresses have broadband access and which ones don’t. This is kind of a big deal. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that Congress passed in 2021 – often referred to as the bipartisan infrastructure bill – requires that this map be used to determine the allocation of federal funds for broadband deployment.
That means there’s great incentive – more to the point, $42.45 billion worth of incentives – to get the map right.
You will not be surprised to learn that when the first iteration of the map came out in November, many people found something wrong with it.
The governor of New York said that 31,000 addresses were missing from her state. Colorado claims at least 13,000 addresses are missing. And those are just addresses that are missing, not necessarily bad information about addresses that are included, which can come in at least two forms – bad information about service providers and bad information about the speed of that service.
How to fix all this? How else in the internet era? Crowdsourcing.
The map is available online – you can look it up here. The deadline for filing challenges is, yikes, Friday. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, has blasted his email list with a plea for constituents to look up their address to see if the data is right or wrong. The Institute for Local Self Reliance, which appears to be a left-of-center group, has set up a website to show people how to file a challenge. The Texas State Comptroller, who is definitely not left of center, has asked the FCC to extend the deadline. Vermont has asked the feds not to allocate anything other than the minimum amount until the map is fixed.
Not much these days generates bipartisan support but this appears to have generated bipartisan support.
So, here’s me doing my civic duty – urging each of you to look up your address to see if the data is right and, if it’s not, to let the FCC know.
I looked up mine and, while I’d enjoy nothing more than good ol’ government incompetence to write about, the FCC appears to have mine right.
Those of you who have read Cardinal from the beginning might remember how, at the outset, I had no broadband to my home near Fincastle in Botetourt County. I could generate weak internet from a small jetpack but it wasn’t strong enough to upload photos to the Cardinal News site. To do that, I had to drive to the Fincastle library, where I could sit outside and mooch off the county’s wifi. (My tax dollars at work!) Then last spring, lo, the Craig-Botetourt Electric Cooperative extended broadband down my road. I wrote a column about who was responsible for that; it’s not as simple as you might think.
As for the FCC map, the agency says I actually have six options for broadband. I can’t vouch for that.
The FCC correctly says that Craig-Botetourt provides fiber to the home at my address – and with download and upload speeds of 300 megabits per second, far faster than what the FCC defines the minimum speeds for high-speed internet (25 Mbps for downloading and and 3 Mbps uploading). I’ve never run a speed test but what speeds I have are quite sufficient. We can even watch movies now, something we couldn’t before unless we drove to a movie theater in Roanoke or the Redboxes outside the Kroger and Food Lion stores in Daleville. Count me as a satisfied Craig-Botetourt customer.
The other options that the FCC says I have aren’t nearly as fast. The next fastest is Elon Musk’s Starlink internet service, which shows up in the database as Space Exploration Holdings LLC. I’ve heard others swear by Starlink but the FCC says the Starlink service available to me is only 100 Mbps for downloading (a third the speed of the Craig-Botetourt service) and 10 Mbps for uploading (versus 300 for Craig-Botetourt). The tech website Arstechnica reported last fall that as more people were signing on with Starlink, they were slowing down the system – and that median download speeds were 62.5 Mbps and median upload speeds were 7.2 Mbps. Philosophically, I’ve been a big fan of Starlink – if Elon can provide internet service where the big telecoms can’t, then have at it, I say. He’s done a much better job of running Starlink than he has Twitter. The current state budget includes $1 million over two years for Starlink service in parts of Southwest Virginia that will probably never see fiber to the home. Practically speaking, though, I held off on signing up with Starlink because I knew the Craig-Botetourt fiber was coming and I felt more comfortable doing business with my local electric cooperative than some distant company owned by a celebrity.
The FCC says I have two other satellite-based internet options and two other wireless options, although the speeds listed all seem frightfully slow. The FCC says the Viasat satellite service has download speeds of 30 Mbps and the Hughes Network satellite has download speeds of 25 Mbps.
The two wireless options listed are slower still – 10 Mbps for U.S. Cellular and 0.2 Mbps for T-Mobile.
Again, I haven’t run speed tests on all these services but this is how the FCC has them listed. If any of these companies feel their speeds are shown wrong, they need to lodge a challenge with the FCC.
Now, here’s why these maps are so tricky to make accurate. The same FCC map that shows me my broadband options also shows my cell service options. It shows I have two 4G networks available –T-Mobile and Verizon – and one 3G network from U.S. Cellular. I’m a Verizon customer, but I only sporadically have Verizon coverage at my house. It’s basically a cellphone dead zone where service cycles in and out. I’m assuming that’s topographical – I live at the bottom of two slight hills, one in front of the house, one behind. If I want completely reliable cell service, I need to walk to the top of either hill and sometimes even that won’t do. On more than one occasion I’ve had to walk down the road to get a clear enough signal to make a call. So while in theory Verizon has coverage at my address, as a practical matter, I often don’t have coverage. I don’t fault Verizon for that; that’s just one of the joys of living west of the Blue Ridge. So is the FCC map right or wrong? It’s both, but I’m not sure we can realistically expect the FCC to account for the dead zone between the hydrangea bushes and the maple tree.
Regardless, check the map and let the FCC know if it has the information for your address wrong. The irony: You’ll need internet coverage from somewhere to do that.