Policy wonks call it the “last mile” - the infrastructure needed to get high-speed internet down those long and sparsely populated country roads. It’s expensive, and private companies are unlikely to recoup that investment from just a couple of households.
And while Virginia’s candidates for governor agree something needs to be done, they don’t quite agree over how to fund it.
Virginia’s chosen to deal with the last mile by paying for it itself. The state provides money to private internet companies, localities chip in, then the company can build the infrastructure needed to reach underserved areas. Hayes Framme is Deputy Secretary of Virginia’s Department of Commerce and Trade.
“It’s not investments for investments' sake,” he says “There is a goal here, there’s a why are we doing it. And the why are we doing it is because broadband -- you could argue -- is the new electricity. It is an economic necessity for all parts of the state.”
But funding is limited, only about a million dollars. The demand for that money far oustrips the supply. Both candidates for Governor agree there should be more, what they don’t agree on is where it should come from.
Democrat Ralph Northam would allocate more tax money to those existing grant programs. Republican Ed Gillespie would loan money to localities, to build and own the infrastructure themselves. But Framme says there are a couple of challenges Virginia has faced in the past.
“Do (localities) want to own the infrastructure themselves, outright? And are the private providers willing to use a publicly owned infrastructure?” asks Framme.
Both candidates say they would keep working with private internet companies, and would continue existing projects to map which communities still need access.
Another challenge is organizing all the state’s efforts, which include projects in southside and southwest Virginia funded by the Virginia Tobacco Commission. Northam says he will point one point person in charge of everything, while Gillespie advocates distributing responsibilities among a few cabinet secretaries.