The Battle for the Internet in Rural America

The Battle for the Internet in Rural America

By Nick Fouriezos


Because accessing the web is fast becoming as essential as flicking on a light.

By Nick Fouriezos

So much of Blacksburg is made up of Virginia Tech. But drive 15 minutes in any direction and this emerging tech hub of a town gives way to rural, rolling plains of farmland. That geographic divide also marks a digital wall between internet haves and have-nots — one fiercely felt along the 40-mile stretch between Blacksburg and Roanoke, a city of 100,000-plus people whose broadband speeds are slower than those found in the capital of Latvia.

A similar digitally divided drama is playing out across America, as access to high-speed internet becomes the great infrastructure opportunity of this century — and a challenge, perhaps, even more pressing than the “crumbling” highways, bridges and airports that President Donald Trump has promised to address. Broadband is “taking its place alongside water, sewer and electricity as essential infrastructure,” the Broadband Opportunity Council declared under President Barack Obama. And it manifests itself along the fault lines of the American experience: Former state auditor Adam Edelen, founder of the left-leaning New Kentucky Project, called it “a precondition, something you have to have.” That was after he toured the state and watched how McDonald’s in rural parking lots would fill up around school-pickup time as parents and their children scrambled to check the internet and download homework assignments before heading home to slow, or nonexistent, connection speeds.

Nowhere in America, it seems, has that kind of tug-of-war been waged more publicly than along this Blacksburg-Roanoke corridor in Southwest Virginia.

In Blacksburg, a satellite Silicon Valley is emerging, with startups Card Isle, a Redbox for greeting cards, and Moveline, a moving-company-price-comparing service, among dozens of others all calling it home. Overlooking the grassy stains and sloping foothills just minutes from the Hokies football stadium, the cloud-storage behemoth Rackspace has created a campus replete with rock-climbing walls and, yes, Ping-Pong tables, just a few miles away from less hospitable cyber climes. 

Over in Roanoke, a fragile compromise struck between business and government has laid track for industry-leading fiber internet. The effort is seeking to salve a city where a local councilman recently had trouble selling his home because speeds weren’t fast enough for work-from-home buyers, he told OZY, and where a neighboring county with poor North Shore parents have to drive their children back to school after hours to finish their homework, according to local officials. Following concerns from local businesses that led to action, Roanoke has seen the first fruits of its internet investment: Local software firm Meridium, which benefits from the new fiber, was acquired for $500 million by General Electric.

But even amid progress, these gains have triggered an impassioned debate about the relationship between government and industry that’s traditionally remained private. “Stand strong and resist the tempting voices. Those are luring voices of the sirens of government that promise increased economic development and prosperity if only we will allow them to take our money and grow just a little larger,” Al Bedrosian, Roanoke County supervisor, warned residents at a press conference outside the county administration building. And looming over the region’s attempts to expand internet access is one major obstacle: the Commonwealth of Virginia, which this spring considered a broadband bill that rural residents fear will kill local efforts to reach the under-connected.

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Rackspace has established its own outpost in Blacksburg.

Source OZY/Nick Fouriezos

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Across the country, more startups are emerging in places like Blacksburg — mid-market cousins such as Portland and Chattanooga as well as big-brother behemoths like Austin and Boston. Most boast a longer retention rate and exist in places with a fraction of the living costs. “Silicon Valley is bursting at the seams,” says Jacob Demmitt, a former colleague and technology reporter who has covered startup culture in Seattle and, now, at The Roanoke Times. “All these hubs are developing.” Ron Rordam, Blacksburg’s mayor of more than a decade, says its success wouldn’t be possible without the ethernet network it launched back in the early ’90s — a choice that landed it plaudits in The New York Times and a spot as the “Most Wired Community” in 1998’s Guinness Book of World Records. “It put us on the map,” Rordam says.

But by around 2010 only 8 percent of the region could access the gold standard of connectivity — fiber — compared to 24 percent nationally. And just 4.5 percent could access gigabyte-per-second speeds, the type that Chattanooga could access, according to a report commissioned by local municipalities. Starting in 2012, the city, county and nearby Salem began laying groundwork for a government-provided regional broadband skeleton. Now 50 miles are covered, with another 25 miles in the works, for a cool $7.5 million. While Roanoke features the population today, Blacksburg, whose 40,000 residents are dominated by university students and faculty, has the know-how and talent to help the region compete for successful partnerships. “We can make more things happen,” says Rordam. “If they’re going to leave for a more urban environment, I want them in Roanoke.”

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As the nation debates about the need for infrastructure upgrades, activists in rural areas wonder if internet should be part of the package.

Source OZY/Nick Fouriezos

The initial effort to provide better internet is costly, which is why profit-focused national providers are loathe to invest, particularly in less-sexy locales. That’s why smaller municipalities feel compelled to pursue public solutions in a field typically led by private companies, as Roanoke did with the formation of its Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority, the engine driving its internet efforts. However, the process is hardly without controversy, a reality Roanoke city manager Christopher Morrill readily admits but argues is beside the point. “We can sit here and philosophically say we don’t want to be in the business while we watch the jobs go to Durham and Asheville — but I don’t think that’s acceptable.” 

That ideological battle raged nationally in October, when a federal appeals court shot down an attempt by the Federal Communications Committee to keep states from banning city-run internet programs, with such limiting laws having been passed in North Carolina and Tennessee. The decision was a win for commercial internet service providers such as Comcast and Verizon, protecting them from government competition in those states, experts say. And in Virginia, it paved the way for a fight that erupted this spring, when Republican state delegate Kathy Byron proposed a bill that would require publicly run providers to disclose more of their dealings and first give private companies the chance to offer service — even of a lesser quality and higher price — before governments step in. The goal was to “expand the availability of broadband to Virginians who do not currently have it,” Byron said at a press conference while defending taxpayer money. “Making huge capital investments with already stressed budgets in rural areas, with risky returns on the investment, really needs to have oversight.”

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Roanoke City Manager Christopher Morrill outlines the efforts to expand broadband access in the region through a city-led partnership, which has drawn controversy.

Source OZY/Nick Fouriezos

Critics point to the fact that Byron has received tens of thousands in contributions from telecom companies, including $36,000 from Verizon and $9,250 from AT&T, calling it the so-called Municipal Broadband Death Bill. Byron, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, has acknowledged that she reached out to internet service providers for language regarding the bill but has denied allegations that those industry officials had a part in crafting the legislation. Meanwhile, State Senator Jenn McClellan, who works for Verizon as a general counsel, fears companies will leave rural Virginians without high-speed internet because of the cost. “If they were going to, it would have been done by now,” says the Richmond Democrat, who has recused herself from the vote because she believes it represents a conflict of interest. 

The existential wrestling match is a reminder of the difficulty of effecting meaningful change when public need faces private interests. That’s especially true in Virginia, and 39 other states that operate under the Dillon Rule, where cities, towns and counties are prohibited from passing laws not explicitly approved by the statehouse. Practically, it means less local control — and after two rewrites and intense public scrutiny, the Byron bill passed the house in February. Now, an even more pared-down bill awaits state senate approval.

As the state and nation remain roiled in debate, local officials continue cautiously. For Roanoke, which was built on railroads whose tracks went quiet and, with them, local manufacturing, the city has only recently recovered as it transitions from “a rail town to a brain town,” as Demmitt puts it. And the possibility of better internet holds promise for beleaguered economies in places such as nearby Martinsville and Danville, where severe population declines came after the two principal industries — tobacco and manufacturing — collapsed during the ’90s, after the passage of NAFTA. “How do you take those companies and people,” says Blacksburg’s Rordam, “and give them the opportunity to stay in their homes, in their communities, and work remotely?”