MINERAL — If you live in rural Virginia, reliable internet might not be all that accessible. But some federal officials want to change that.
U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, hosted a Rural Broadband Summit at Louisa County High School on Saturday to discuss initiatives to bring internet access to rural communities.
Christopher Ali, a University of Virginia professor, said there’s a “digital divide” between urban and rural communities.
The Federal Communications Commission sets the benchmark for internet reliability at 25 megabytes per second for downloads and 3 megabytes per second for uploads.
Statewide, 97% of people in urban areas have access to internet speeds that meet the federal benchmarks, compared to 71% in rural areas.
Access to the FCC benchmark of service varies wildly in Central Virginia, according to a 2018 report. Charlottesville and Madison County residents have the most access at 98.4% and 92.7% of their populations, respectively. However, only 55.6% of Louisa County residents and just 29% of Buckingham County residents have access to those internet speeds.
According to the report, Albemarle County’s population is split about the same between rural and urban areas. In urban areas, more than 99% of people have access to internet meeting the FCC benchmark, compared to 70% in rural areas.
The report shows access to coverage, but it doesn't include prices or how many residents actually have internet that meets the FCC benchmark.
Ali, however, noted that the FCC benchmark is actually “pretty slow” compared to international standards.
“It’s not just internet, it has to be usable internet,” Spanberger said. “We can’t let our networks become obsolete in 10 years time.”
Spanberger also said the report can be misleading and the issue is probably worse.
“We know these statistics actually underestimate the number of people who don’t have access,” she said. “These surveys typically overestimate coverage.”
Spanberger called access to reliable internet an area of “opportunity.” She said the federal government needs to focus its funding strategy for broadband and work with public and private entities to improve services.
Ali estimated that improving connectivity for rural areas across the country would cost between $80 billion and $150 billion.
Aimee Meacham, chief of external affairs for BroadbandUSA, said her agency, which is part of the Department of Commerce, is coordinating efforts across the federal government that are working to enhance internet access.
Meacham is also coordinating with state governments to map more accurate data on broadband access.
“We sort of need to know what we have so we know where to go next,” she said.
Richard Jenkins, field representative for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service, encouraged the roughly 100 attendees to push local providers to submit more applications for federal funding through the Community Connect Grant.
The grant program awards funding to service providers looking to build broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved rural areas. The money can be used on broadband infrastructure to help spark economic growth and also can fund service for public institutions and community centers.
Jenkins said about $33 million is available in the current fiscal year.
“I would like to see more applicants from this part of Virginia because, quite frankly, you are competitive,” he said.
Ali advocated for more federal spending to provide grants to local governments. Virginia is, unfortunately, a state that makes it difficult for local governments to provide a public internet option, he said.
“The major companies are not connecting these communities,” he said. “We need to empower these communities to do it themselves when the market has failed.”