Broadband Forum: a chance to set goals

Those involved in next week’s Broadband Forum — 5:30 p.m. next Wednesday, July 8 at the Rappahannock County High School auditorium — see the public discussion as the community’s opportunity to lay out its goals for broadband internet access.

The forum, sponsored by the county and the Greater Piedmont Area Association of Realtors (GPAAR), features a presentation by, among other speakers, Basil I. Gooden, Virginia state director of the USDA’s Rural Development agency.

“This is the first rural broadband-related forum we will have participated in in Virginia,” Gooden said by phone from Richmond on Monday, “and I am excited to be there to have this kind of conversation.”

Gooden said he plans to touch on a number of technology-driven developments in the effort to provide middle-mile and last-mile internet access to rural areas around the world — including futuristic stationary balloon-based access points that Google has tested and long-flying drones that Amazon is testing for providing wireless coverage in remote areas.

But, he adds, “sometimes we are paralyzed by waiting for the right technology to come along and provide that last-mile answer, whether it’s wireless [there are two wireless broadband providers operating in Rappahannock, Piedmont Broadband and Virginia Broadband], or over power lines. But sometimes, just having a policy discussion can drive the innovation and technology.

“We need to focus on the policy side,” he said, “and say: This is what we want to do. It’s like rural electrification a century ago, someone first had to say, ‘This needs to happen.’ ”

Said Rappahannock County Administrator John McCarthy: “The fact is, the free market isn’t solving our problem, and I’m expecting we’ll have to solve it ourselves.”

McCarthy and Gooden both cited examples of successful rural broadband-access projects in Virginia.

“There are victories and losses, winners and losers,” McCarthy said, “and there’s the economic development aspect [of improving broadband access], and deciding what kind we do want —in this case, I think much of it would be improving people’s ability to do business from home, the kind of economic development we want — not necessarily making it possible have more virtual office centers or commercial development.”

Some jurisdictions in Virginia, McCarthy said, have created quasi-public authorities that take on the cost of tapping into the “first-mile” broadband pipelines, providing access points for private companies to take into neighborhoods (or, in Rappahannock’s case, hollows). Rappahannock, in fact, is now crossed by two such fiber-optic pipelines, along U.S. routes 211 and 522. Public authorities, McCarthy said, can help to lower the relatively large initial costs of tapping into the pipeline.

Gooden said much of the USDA Rural Development agency’s work, which he notes “puts $1.3 billion into the Virginia economy annually through loans and other programs,” involves boosting economic development in struggling regions of the state, in particular southwest Virginia. “But we don’t utilize all of our allocated funding each year,” he said, “so I want people in Rappahannock, and all over the state, to know that we are here to help them.”

Gooden, who grew up on a Virginia cattle farm, said he shares the often firmly held beliefs of those raised in rural areas “to keep it the way it was, or is. But here’s the thing, and one thing I stress in my everyday work: We are working to give people opportunities to work where they live, instead of live where they work.

“Developing broadband policies — that will help empower us to work where we live,” he said.

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