For some rural towns and counties, upgrading the broadband infrastructure is a question of balancing a deeply held commitment to a rural identity with the costs of being left behind by a digitally powered world.For example, just a mere 60 miles outside of the Beltway, scenic Rappahannock County, Virginia is confronting the challenges of bringing a 21st century broadband infrastructure to a sparsely populated (26 people per square mile) county that still embraces its 18th and 19th century heritage.
In rural counties like Rappahannock, only 63 percent of American adults have access to broadband, according to a Pew Research report.
USTelecom broadband providers support public-private partnership efforts aimed at ensuring broadband is built in areas which don’t currently have it. One way to help speed deployment is eliminating federal regulations that stymie investment as well as encouraging policies like “dig once,” which can help lessen the costs for providers.
In a recent series of articles written for the Rappahannock News, county school superintendent, Dr. Donna Matthews estimates that at least 40 percent of the students in the county don’t have broadband internet at home.
“In truth, many of the qualities that keep the county unique also make it unappealing or particularly difficult for private service providers,” noted Rappahannock News reporter Randy Rieland. ”Today, the onus is on local governments to pinpoint their needs, map out a strategy, and more often than not, spend public money to build at least some of the necessary infrastructure,” he concludes.
Neighboring Virginia counties in and around rural Shenandoah Valley are following just that prescription.
In the spring of 2016, the School Board of Orange County (population 35,385) submitted an application for federal funding to install 33 mile wide-area-fiber network connecting seven facilities. The county also committed to providing local funds for additional fiber strands for new public safety communications system and as the foundation for a county-wide “open access” fiber network.
Culpeper County (population 46,689) is evaluating an October 2016 comprehensive recommendation for a broadband strategy. The document notes that “service providers have to be part of the solution. No matter what investments the town and the county choose to make, service providers will have to use the new infrastructure to make the local government investments successful.”
Sandie Terry, vice president of broadband for the Virginia state-affiliated Center for Innovative Technology, is a big believer in public-private partnerships. In the third article of the series, she contends that identifying what a community can bring to the table — infrastructure assets, grant opportunities, simplifying the permit process — can give local officials more leverage when they are seeking partners.