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Dropped connection

SoVaNow.com / September 04, 2019
How is broadband internet like the weather? Everyone talks about it, but no one does anything about it.

Example zillionty-million-cajillion came last week in Chase City when 5th District Congressman Denver Riggleman brought in a bunch of government agency types, both state and federal, to talk about available sources of money to expand rural broadband. The Aug. 26 forum organized by Riggleman drew representatives of local governments and other outfits, such as Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative and its EMPOWER subsidiary, that hope someday to bring all of Southside Virginia into the digital age — and need outside funding to do it.

Judging from the sums of money that were being tossed around the room as the best-we-can-do solution for broadband expansion, Riggleman should have left the bureaucrats at home and brought a better sidekick.

Dr. Evil would have been an apt choice.

Remember that guy, from the Austin Powers movies? He was the idiot version of SPECTRE’s Blofeld, the villain to Mike Myer’s comedic take on James Bond. Anyway, you’ll probably remember the scene from the movie where Dr. Evil, reanimated after decades in deep freeze, carries out his dastardly plan to wreak destruction on the planet and demands his Rip Van Winkle-like ransom, pinky finger pressed to his lips: “One million dollars!”

The dollar sums tossed around at the Riggleman’s broadband forum were slightly less ridiculous, but not by much. Let’s start with the Federal Communications Commission, which, according to officials present at the meeting, has set aside $84.5 million over the next decade to wire a whopping 31,000 customers in undeserved areas. Over a decade. Across the entire country. Wow. I bet Donald Trump is charging his own administration more money than that for tee times at his Doral Miami Resort. (Wait till the foreign heads of state attending next year’s G-7 conference, which the Grifter-in-Chief proposes to hold at Trump Doral, get a load of their room charges.) The FCC is a pathetically inept organization, run by an ex-Verizon lawyer, so colored me shocked that it’s doing less than zilch to foster broadband expansion in rural America. Not surprising there would be no love in the hearts of FCC hacks for where the big telecoms don’t want to go.

But at least everyone at the meeting seemed to acknowledge that the FCC sucks. What’s more mind-blowing is that Riggleman would deign to talk about his efforts in Congress to secure rural broadband funding with something other than a doleful tone of professed failure. Hey, I didn’t vote for Riggleman, but I’ll allow that you can’t judge a congressman by his first eight months in office. So “failure” isn’t really the right word here — “haven’t gotten it done” is more like it, and at least leaves open the possibility of improvement later on. But that’s not the message that Riggleman was in town to impress upon the locals, and I honestly don’t understand why. Why can’t politicians just level with their constituents from time to time and admit that their efforts haven’t borne fruit, and maybe won’t do so for some time? Does a bear have to have broadband coverage to go in the woods?

But no: instead Riggleman talked up his work in Congress to secure $55 million for rural broadband expansion, with plans to ask for $25 million more. Big whoop. $55 million, $80 million spread over the entire country, it’s practically meaningless. These numbers don’t amount to the rounding error on the federal budget, unless the numbers are decimals and have lots of zeroes in front of them. C’mon folks. This is pathetic.

Anyway: that’s my rant. For anyone looking for alternatives, I would highly recommend paying attention to the Democratic presidential campaign, as several candidates have proposed meaningful approaches for rural broadband. Elizabeth Warren, one of the leaders of the Democratic field, had an excellent op-ed in The Washington Post last week in which she wrote about not only providing more money for rural broadband, but also pushing back against market giants that sabotage the work of public utilities, rural cooperatives and others that are seeking to connect the heartland. (MEC and BIT, Buggs Island Telephone, both fall into the rural cooperative category.) You can find the piece at washingtonpost.com. Here’s the candidate:

Horror stories starring giant Internet companies are practically universal. In the wealthiest country on the planet, we lag behind many other developed nations in connectivity and speed, while also paying more for that service. That’s why companies such as Comcast consistently rank as the United States’ most hated companies by consumers. When you eliminate a competitive market and replace it with regional monopolies or duopolies, providers have no incentive to improve their service ....

Without a stable, high-speed Internet connection, it’s virtually impossible for a town to keep or recruit new businesses. Not having broadband at home creates a “homework gap” that makes it much harder for students to compete. For rural and low-income communities, lawmakers have prioritized increased funding for telemedicine as a way to lower health-care costs and reach isolated communities. But again, that isn’t an option without good Internet.

Enough is enough. As president, I would work to ensure every home in the United States has an affordable, broadband connection. I have a plan for a new public option for broadband Internet, carried out by a new Office of Broadband Access that would manage an $85 billion federal grant program. Only electricity and telephone cooperatives, nonprofit organizations, tribes, cities, counties and other state subdivisions would be eligible for grants.

The federal government would pay 90 cents on the dollar for construction under these grants. In exchange, applicants must offer high-speed public broadband directly to every home in their application area. Applicants would have to offer at least one plan with 100-megabits per second speeds and one discount Internet plan for low-income customers with a prepaid feature or a low monthly rate. The plan would also set aside $5 billion specifically for 100 percent federal grants to tribal nations to expand broadband access on Native American land.

Additionally, we would make it clear in federal statute that municipalities have the right to build their own networks, and I would appoint FCC commissioners who would restore net neutrality and make sure our government programs live up to the promise of universal service. We would also prohibit the range of sneaky maneuvers that giant private providers use to unfairly squeeze out competition, hold governments hostage and drive up prices.

There is both a moral and an economic imperative to enact a public option for broadband. If we stay on our current trajectory, ISPs will continue to decide which communities succeed and which ones fail. We imperil the success of future generations, threaten our competitiveness on the global stage and risk further diaspora from towns and cities that are in dire need of economic turnaround.

Providing universal, public access to broadband won’t be easy. The ISPs aren’t interested in competition and will fight to keep the status quo. But this is a worthy cause. Together we can change outcomes for forgotten towns and cities across our country.

Guys like Riggleman talk up a populist message but never seem willing to buck the powers-that-be to get what they say they want. Wonder why that is. Could it be time to look elsewhere for someone who can get the job done?



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