Virginia is setting an example for the rest of the nation.
That’s not something we hear every day.
How we’re doing it: the way we’ve extended broadband into rural areas.
That’s definitely not something we hear every day.
It’s true, though. A former Virginia official — a son of Lynchburg, in fact — is now in charge of the nation’s push for universal broadband.
Some of you may recognize his name. For nearly seven years, Evan Feinman was executive director of the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, more commonly known as the Tobacco Commision — which has nothing to do with tobacco and everything to do with creating a new economy in the former tobacco-growing counties of Southwest and Southside. Much of that work dealt with broadband; the commission has paid for more than 3,000 miles of rural broadband that otherwise wouldn’t exist.
When Ralph Northam became governor in 2018, that led to a dual appointment: Feinman was also named as Northam’s chief broadband advisor. The job obviously ended when Northam’s term did, and Feinman left the Tobacco Commission as well. A month later, he took a job with the Biden administration as director of the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a previously obscure agency within the Commerce Department that has now gained a higher profile with the 2021 passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, aka the bipartisan infrastructure bill. (The bill was more bipartisan in the Senate than the House, where virtually every Republican, including all the ones from Virginia, voted against it.)
In any case, that infrastructure bill included $42.5 billion for broadband. It’s Feinman’s office that is in charge of distributing all that money. I recently talked with Feinman about his new role — and thanks to my new broadband service here in Botetourt County, I was able to talk to him via Zoom. (You can read my previous column about how broadband came to my part of Botetourt County.)
Feinman, who grew up in the Hill City (he’s an E.C. Glass High School grad), still lives in Richmond; he says that was a condition of him taking the job. Our new virtually connected world makes it possible to live and work outside D.C.; he also spends a lot of time on the road anyway. He estimates he has been to somewhere between 20 and 35 states so far and expects to eventually get to all of them. “I have nothing but good things to say about Richmond International Airport,” he says.
The program he’s heading is new. “It’s as close to a startup inside a government as you can get,” he says. For now, no money beyond planning grants has been distributed (Virginia got its first planning grants in December); the actual construction money won’t start being awarded until this summer. First, the rules have to be written, which is what Feinman and his staff are working on now. Those are important but boring so let’s skip over those. “It’s a ton of moving parts,” Feinman says. “Those will be significant documents.”
The funding will be distributed based on the broadband coverage map that the Federal Communications Commission has been developing (see my previous column about that), with 90% based on need and the remaining 10% distributed based on who has unusually high-cost locations. “The biggest thing that surprises people,” Feinman says, is that you’d think broadband coverage would generally match population density, “but it really doesn’t. It’s more of a paint splatter of where there is or is not coverage because the fragmented approach we’ve taken to date has not had a concerted vision of how to get everybody online, nor was there kind of granular focus on leaving no location behind that we have as a result of this program.”
In fact, until recently, that hasn’t been the vision, because broadband coverage has been solely left up to the providers, and they go where they think they can make money. That’s led to some obvious gaps — “isolated farms, tribal villages in Alaska, the people in the Pacific territories and Virgin Islands,” Feinman says — but also some unexpected ones. In Virginia, he says, “we’re still working with some people west of Ashland who can’t get on, and that seems crazy” — Hanover County is generally flat and not that far from a major metro. Meanwhile, thanks to all that Tobacco Commission money, some parts of Southwest Virginia are quite wired.
The federal government 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). Since then, every administration has put up some money for rural broadband, but that’s always been on a hodgepodge basis.
“This is the first time the federal government has said we’re going to identify every single location that could take broadband service and we’re going to get every single one of them online,” Feinman says. “That’s a sea change in the way we think about internet connectivity. If there’s a silver lining to the COVID pandemic, we’re all on the same page now. Everybody understands this is not a luxury. This is in the same category as water, sewer, electrical — this is a necessity for full participation in American life.” That’s an audacious goal, one that’s matched by a previous technical challenge in our history: rural electrification. We associate that effort with the New Deal of the 1930s, but the reality is it took decades to wire every house in the country. In 1959, then Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, who had cosponsored the Rural Electrification Act in 1936, estimated that 10% of the nation’s farms still weren’t electrified. By contrast, Feinman estimates, “it should be no more than six years before every single American has broadband connections.” Many states are almost there: Broadband Now says 99.8% of Rhode Island is wired. Of course, it’s small and flat. However, New York is big and not entirely flat and its figure is put at 98.8%. Virginia is listed at 93.6%. In all, 31 states have broadband available to 90% or more of their households, but there are some places that still rank much lower. West Virginia is the least-wired state at 65.8%.
(This can lead to a philosophical discussion about whether conventional broadband is really the best way to reach mountainous areas, or whether satellite internet — such as Elon Musk’s Starlink — is the better way to go. Virginia has appropriated some money for Starlink service in the coal counties, but Feinman has always been a strong proponent of actual fiber. His rationale: If an internet provider goes out of business, you still have the fiber in the ground for someone else to take over. If Starlink goes poof, there’s nothing because those satellites only have a lifespan of five years before they burn up in the atmosphere and have to be replaced.)
The most interesting thing to me is how Feinman’s previous work in Virginia has informed national policy. The essence of the federal broadband program is that the feds give money to the states and the states make their own decisions, within certain parameters (see all those rules that are being worked on). That means states need to have a broadband office to oversee all this money. When Feinman started, fewer than half did, so he’s been working with them to set up those offices. Now each one does. The model for each has been the Virginia broadband program, in which the state issues grants that get matched by private internet service providers. “It’s because of the work [Terry] McAuliffe started, Northam hit the gas on, and the Youngkin administration has continued,” Feinman says. “We’ve had nearly $1 billion in public funding, matched by nearly $1 billion private-sector funding.” Feinman also credits all the local economic development officials he worked with during his time in Virginia state government. “I learned so much from those people,” he says. “Their stamp is very much on this program. Their imprint is now going to be felt across the country.”
Here’s where Feinman gets philosophical about something that is otherwise a technical undertaking. “This is a big project that’s going to materially change the lives of millions and millions of Americans,” he says. “I think there’s this broad view that we can’t do big things anymore as a country and I think that’s not true, because I’m doing big things and I have other colleagues in the government who are doing big things at the state and federal level.”
He points out that the projects having the most impact are infrastructure-related — and those tend to be bipartisan. “The way we get in our own way is when we start having food fights about what the best way is to do right by the citizens instead of compromising on an approach that we all agree is going to solve a problem that we all agree needs solving and nobody disagrees — not the most conservative governor, not the most liberal governor.” Everybody is for more broadband access. Because of that — and that $42.5 billion — “we’re going to get this really cool thing done.”