First in a three-part series on the availability of broadband service in the area.
On a typical weekday inside Happy Creek Coffee & Tea in The Plains, several of the small café’s wooden tables are occupied by professionals quietly typing away at their laptops.
“We get a lot of people who come in for the day and will work for several hours,” says barista Abby Lichlater.
Among the regulars is Steve, who directs a local nonprofit and asked that his last name not be used. “I have no internet access from home, except through my phone,” explains Steve, who had an ultra-fast broadband connection before moving to Fauquier a few years ago. Happy Creek provides both the fastest internet he’s found and “probably the best coffee I’ve ever had.”
For thousands of Fauquier residents and scores of businesses, the lack of broadband isn’t just an annoyance or inconvenience, it’s an impediment to success in school, at work and even staying healthy. It’s a problem they share with more than 600,000 other Virginians. It’s something that the Fauquier County Board of Supervisors as well state and federal officials say they want to overcome.
It’s worst in the rural areas where internet companies, large or small, balk at the expense of extending high-speed service to small pockets of customers where they cannot recover their costs. Government subsidies from Richmond and Washington are meant to overcome that reluctance.
The latest statistics from the Federal Communications Commission paint a rosy picture. It estimates that 93.5 percent of Americans now have access to fixed broadband at 25 million bits per second, its benchmark. However, one in four Americans in rural areas still do not. Virginia looks even better in the FCC report, with 97.8 coverage in Fauquier. But two of the five federal commissioners dissented, arguing the coverage data provided by internet companies is flawed.
Commonwealth Connect, Gov. Ralph Northam's multi-million-dollar initiative to partner with the private sector to make broadband available in every corner and community in the state, also contends the FCC’s numbers “are exaggerated.” It says that in rural Virginia, just 68 percent have access to a high-speed, 25 MBPS connection.
For years, as the internet has become an increasingly essential part of modern life, Fauquier residents have scrambled to find ways to cope with slow connections or none at all.
Some Fauquier schoolchildren don’t have access to online educational resources, and some adults are forced into long commutes because telecommuting is impractical or impossible. Even home sales are affected. Real estate agents say poor internet service discourages some buyers.
Evan Feinman, the governor’s chief broadband adviser, says that in internet deserts, property values can jump 4 to 8 percent “the moment that connection gets there.”
“Communities that don’t have access to broadband internet are simply not on the list for any business expansion or relocation,” he says, and it’s harder for workers to find and apply for jobs, and for their children to keep pace in school. It can stymy health care providers’ efforts to track elderly patients’ health remotely, which could spare them long trips and waits for appointments.
Some students lose good internet access when they walk out the school door, interfering with online homework and lesson planning.
Everybody assumes you have internet. , i, says Sharon Strover, a University of Texas professor and internet policy expert.
Fauquier officials began working with renewed vigor on the county’s access woes in 2016, when the board of supervisors created a broadband advisory committee. But progress has been slow. The county hired a consultant to identify areas where internet connections are insufficient and set aside $20 million to invest in infrastructure to bring broadband to more communities. But the company initially selected to explore the work was hamstrung by internal issues, and the effort was placed on hold while the county sought additional bids.
Now, Fauquier County staff are studying two new proposals aimed at boosting the county’s broadband network. The supervisors are scheduled to receive presentations about the options in July. If the board approves one or both, construction could begin soon after, Deputy Fauquier County Administrator Katie Heritage said.
How access affects students, workers, real estate
Meanwhile, Fauquier County residents with slow or no access flock to libraries, coffee shops, schools and offices to use Wi-Fi.
Kim Ritter, Fauquier County Schools supervisor for library and media services, says s, and the dead zones make it very difficult for them “to accomplish what their classmates are accomplishing when they’re at home.” Parents hit roadblocks when asked to fill out online forms or use educational sites such as Blackboard. Teachers who rely on digital lesson planning struggle, too, and some “stay after school and work because they don’t have [internet] access at home,” she says.
These dynamics also affect Fauquier County’s real estate market. When buying or shopping for houses, internet is “definitely on the forefront of people’s minds. … [F]or some buyers, it is a deal-breaking criteria,” says realtor Dave Wills, president of the Greater Piedmont Realtors Association.
Since Virginia does not require sellers to disclose internet access, some buyers are in for a rude surprise when they move in. Wills has seen clients write a clause into their contracts so they can check out a home’s internet access.
Urban vs. rural digital divide
The dearth of broadband in rural, less populous parts of Fauquier County has a simple explanation: internet service providers don’t want to incur the expense of laying new lines and purchasing equipment if there are too few prospective customers to make it profitable.
Unlike the U.S. Postal Service, which charges the same amount to deliver a stamped envelope to a dense suburban neighborhood as a rural one, internet is not considered a public utility, and its availability is largely unregulated and left up to the market.
Although a dozen or more companies advertise service in Fauquier, they tend to compete against each other for new customers only in urban areas. Here and elsewhere, the big companies such as Comcast and Verizon often do not compete head to head, allowing them to charge higher prices because customers have few if any alternatives.
As a result, says Chris Mitchell, who directs internet research at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, an economic think-tank, “those companies have done a very poor job of investing in rural areas.”
Fauquier County is far from unique. “[High-speed Internet] access throughout the Piedmont region is lacking,” says Wills, the real estate agent. Culpeper, Madison, Orange, and Rappahannock counties have the same spotty internet coverage, he said.
By contrast, Northern Virginia suburbs such as Herndon, Woodbridge and Centreville are crisscrossed with fiber-optic lines. Service is also plentiful in and around the town of Culpeper and other areas along U.S. 17 where businesses are concentrated.
Access to broadband in Fauquier is a mixed bag. Wealthier areas north of Interstate 66 along John Marshall Highway have decent but spotty service, while the middle-income farming regions to the south and west have some of the worst internet coverage in the county.
According to BroadbandNow, a company that helps consumers assess their internet options, three providers offer residential internet service in the area near Markham, (pop. 197). But of those three, two sell satellite service, which can cut out during storms and is usually subject to strict data limits.
The third, Verizon, offers slow, DSL-based internet to only 13 percent of residents. In other words, most Hume residents can choose between data-capped satellite internet or no internet at all.
Things are somewhat better in Goldvein (pop. 1,059), where five companies offer internet service. But two sell satellite internet and the one provider that sells fixed wireless internet –
considered better than satellite but worse than fiber or cable-based service – only offers coverage to 7 percent of residents within the zip code. Verizon offers service to 80 percent of the area, but as in Hume, that service is slow, DSL-based internet.
A third of people living in Goldvein have access to high-speed home internet through Comcast. But some parts of Goldvein as well as parts of nearby Sumerduck have no home internet access at all, except for satellite.
Sometimes, internet service providers will work with residents or groups of residents to wire their homes, but the cost can be steep.
Shelly Norden, an English teacher near New Baltimore, banded together with her neighbors to convince an internet provider to bring in better service a few years ago. After putting “relentless” pressure on Comcast, “finally they agreed to put lines out here, but we all had to pay $1,500” each for the installation, she says.
But the cost was worth it, she adds. Prior to Comcast, Norden and her neighbor’s Verizon bills could reach up to $600 a month because they would exceed their data limits. Now her monthly bill for internet and TV is about $200.
For most residents, however, getting a company to agree to this kind of arrangement is either unfeasible or unaffordable.
Steve, the nonprofit director, knows because he tried. He called Comcast to see what it would take to bring internet service to his house. “They said it would cost $28,000 … but they would give us a $7,000 rebate,” he said. He chose the coffee shop option instead.
Kevin Carty is a policy researcher and journalist. Christopher Connell, an independent writer-editor working with the Piedmont Journalism Foundation, contributed to this story. Christopher Connell is a former assistant bureau chief for The Associated Press in Washington.