In Rappahannock County High School’s auditorium last week, state and federal officials joined representatives of Virginia’s agricultural, medical and real estate trade groups and several local officials to cheer on the idea of rural broadband and its benefits.
As for the reality rather than the idea of broadband internet access — in rural areas across Virginia, but especially here in a county where informal estimates put that number at about 15 percent of 2,700 households — well, that will likely be the focus of future meetings.
Sponsored by the Greater Piedmont Area Association of Realtors (GPAAR) and the county, the July 8 Broadband Forum was attended by about 100 citizens and featured brief, optimistic remarks by Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Todd Haymore, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Virginia state director for Rural Development Basil Gooden, Virginia Rural Center executive director Christy Morton, Virginia Agribusiness Council president Katie Frazier, Dr. Karen Rheuban, who heads the University of Virginia’s telemedicine program, GPAAR board president Charles Miller and Rappahannock County Administrator John McCarthy and Superintendent of Schools Donna Matthews.
After nearly a half hour of introductions by GPAAR legislative consultant Susan Gaston, who emceed the forum, Haymore, whose appearance at the forum hadn’t been announced, rose from the first row of auditorium seats to tell the crowd that the way to preserve Virginia’s vast areas of agricultural and forested land was to give businesses in those regions— agribusiness, agritourism businesses such as wineries and direct-to-consumer farms and others — an unfettered connection to the “global economy.”
“If you’re the smallest farmer in Rappahannock County, or you’re the largest winery, you need to have, I believe, that technology in place — to communicate with your customers, with the people who are interested in spending money,” Haymore said. “As you’re thinking about it, think about it as a way to maintaining the quality of life, as it is.
“I believe the growing power of agritourism, be it wineries, craft beer, pick-your-own, the bed and breakfasts and inns that are associated with all those — I would make the argument that broadband access and technology are key to maintaining the quality of life that you’re enjoying now.
“Agriculture is high tech,” Haymore said. Rappahannock’s representative to the Virginia House of Delegates Michael Webert, a Fauquier County cattle and hay farmer who was also seated in the audience, confirmed when asked by the Agribusiness Council’s Frazier that he sometimes checked commodity prices five or six times a day from the field.
Rheuban similarly outlined the benefits of telemedicine for those with broadband access, and Matthews listed the increasing number of online learning opportunities available to students, ever more of them becoming necessary, though not yet required.
Both Haymore and Gooden mentioned grants and funding possibilities and promised to help find them — especially for a possible regional group of jurisdictions, as was suggested by McCarthy. (His counterparts from Orange and Culpeper counties were also in the audience.)
From the written questions collected and asked of the panelists and speakers by Gaston, it became evident that many in attendance were already members of the choir to whom most of the panelists and speakers had been preaching.
“When, and how, can we bring broadband to Rappahannock?” was the first question; Gaston directed it to McCarthy, who suggested that “since private industry hasn’t managed to provide [broadband] to Rappahannock County, the answer might lay in some sort of public effort.” He later suggested a regional authority working to direct and subsidize expansion by local providers — including the three wireless-internet providers already operating in Rappahannock (Piedmont Broadband), Culpeper (Virginia Broadband) and Fauquier (Blaze) counties.
During his remarks earlier at the forum, McCarthy got a laugh when he said “there are several candidates for public office in the audience tonight, and not a one of them would put out in their campaign literature, ‘We want Rappahannock to change.’ That’s the death knell of a campaign in Rappahannock. Everybody wants Rappahannock to stay exactly as it is before I moved here.”
But McCarthy quoted a favorite fictional character who said, “For everything to stay the same, everything has to change,” and suggested that providing broadband access to such hilly and hard-to-reach rural areas as most of Rappahannock, or western Culpeper and Madison counties, might be the change that keeps things more or less the same — and might require some kind of significant public funding.
“It will certainly require significant public engagement,” he said.
Gaston and others promised that GPAAR would host further forums, possibly with a more specific focus on solutions.
Rich Shoemaker, owner of the eight-year-old Amissville-based Piedmont Broadband, said Tuesday that he and the operators of Virginia Broadband and Fauquier’s Blaze planned to meet later this month to discuss the possibilities of cooperating with each other, and with any sort of regional publicly funded effort to expand.
Shoemaker said he thinks the first step should be to discover how many of Rappahannock’s 7,000 residents actually have broadband access — and where they get it, whether from wireless providers like Piedmont, cable and phone companies like Comcast, Centurylink and Verizon, satellite providers or cellular carriers.
“We don’t even know where we’re starting from,” he said.