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EDITORIAL: The bill to nowhere

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Broadband cartoon

Theodora Higginson Hanna cheered the county’s efforts to expand the reach of broadband when she came home recently to visit her family in Rectortown.

Down from Boston, where she is the co-director of a nonprofit that helps low-income people learn to use the internet and acquire low-cost computers, Theo reminded us of a salient point made by author Gerry Smith.

“Being disconnected isn’t just a function of being poor. These days, it is also a reason some people stay poor,” he says.

Theo’s organization, Tech Goes Home, believes those without internet access are “finding the basic tools for escaping poverty increasingly out of reach.”

“Without the tools, access and skills needed to navigate online job portals, it has become incredibly difficult to gain employment,” Theo says. “Free online job training opportunities that help adults develop career-specific skills, prepare resumes and practice interviews are out of reach for those who need them most.”

Meanwhile, Theo reminds us, “The so-called 'homework gap' for children without home internet access grows by the day.”

We have all heard the stories of inventive students turning to McDonald’s for free wi-fi, or going to the library, where, while it’s a wonderful and free option, is “not a substitute for access at home,” Theo points out, “where the lines are shorter and hours longer.”

Which brings us to the Virginia Broadband Deployment Act, introduced in the General Assembly by Lynchburg area delegate Kathy Byron.

On the surface, the purpose of the legislation is to prevent government funds from being wasted deploying broadband in areas that are already served, like Warrenton.

“This bill is intended to fulfill a longstanding goal of the General Assembly, and the Broadband Advisory Council, to expand the availability of broadband to Virginians who do not currently have it,” Byron, a member of the council, said. “Making huge capital investments with already-stressed budgets in rural areas, with risky returns on the investment, really needs to have oversight.”

Ray LaMura, President of the Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association (VCTA), who serves on the Council with Byron, says expanding access “is the very goal” of the act.

“There are still Virginians, mostly in rural areas, without broadband service,” LaMura says. “ As such, taxpayer funds should be prioritized for getting these residents broadband service, not building more broadband to people and businesses that already have it.”

That sounds reasonable.

And Claude Schoch, of High Mountain Internet, agrees somewhat, telling the Times he thinks the bill “has good intentions” and that “often the easiest, fastest and most economical way to cover the unconnected is to subsidize existing carriers to move into the difficult, hard-to-reach areas.”

Schoch thinks the bill has flaws. “It's poorly articulated, and the standard for a connected area should be the FCC defined broadband speed of 25Mbps, not the antiquated 10/1,” he says.

Flawed is an understatement, according to Cedar Run District Supervisor Rick Gerhardt, who is chairman of the Fauquier Broadband Advisory Committee. He calls the bill a “farce” and “just a way to prevent anyone from competing” with Comcast and other members of VCTA.

Gerhardt says the bill “sets up an obstacle course of red tape” only a “bureaucracy Ninja warrior” could get through at the same time taking away “almost every price advantage the county could provide, handing the advantage to large providers.”

“Suddenly,” Gerhardt quips, a trade association “built to lobby for the cable and telecommunication industry, is concerned about how municipalities in Virginia are spending their tax dollars? Oh right, because there’s a chance that money will not be going into their pocket.”

“However, they are happy to let municipalities foot the bill when it comes to residents that don’t have broadband currently -- rural localities that won’t produce profits instantaneously,” Gerhardt says.

If the bill passes, Gerhardt says, “We’re dead.”

Gerhardt also says the bill is tainted because VCTA has given Byron $15,000 in donations, part of the roughly $140,000 she has received from the technology and communications sector.

“Makes you wonder if VCTA handed Byron the language for the bill at a Broadband Advisory Council meeting or when they handed her a campaign donation,” Gerhardt says.

When asked by the Fauquier Times if the association had a hand in writing the legislation, LaMura said Byron “asked for our thoughts on the bill.”

That sounds reasonable, too, or, at least, that’s how it all works.

Nonetheless, we urge the Assembly to listen to Theo Hanna, Rick Gerhardt and Nancy Reagan.

Leland Schwartz

“A good deal of tyranny goes by the name of protection.” Crystal Eastman

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