Forum Assesses State of Broadband on the Shore

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By Stefanie Jackson – The Eastern Shore has made progress toward offering high-speed internet, aka broadband, to all its residents, but availability isn’t the only issue quality and affordability are also essential, a recent online forum revealed.

“I know all too well the challenges for Virginia’s unconnected, and this past year has just magnified those 100 times over,” said Deputy Broadband Advisor Kyle Rosner at the opening of the Jan. 21 event.

The online forum was hosted by Willie Justis and Karen Downing, of the Eastern Shore chapter of Virginia Organizing – a statewide, nonpartisan grassroots organization.

Speakers included state officials, county administrators, educators, internet providers, and concerned citizens.

Gov. Ralph Northam has been “laser-focused on broadband since day one of his administration,” said Rosner, who highlighted Northam’s goal of achieving universal broadband in Virginia by 2028 – meaning every resident would have access to high-speed internet.

Virginia has invested $100 million in broadband to date – including $80 million in the past year – primarily through the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI) created by state legislators in 2016.

The Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development Broadband administers VATI grants that allow broadband providers to expand their services to unserved or underserved localities.

Northam provided $50 million in the current state budget and designated $30 million in federal funding through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act for broadband.

Accomack also spent a portion of its CARES Act money on broadband – about 25%, or $4 million.

Accomack County Administrator Mike Mason explained how the the county used CARES funds to “provide broadband access to areas with high densities of Accomack County Public Schools students who lack sufficient access to high speed internet.”

Accomack County partnered with the school division and the Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority (ESVBA) to bring public Wi-Fi to students in need. The Wi-Fi was powered by Verizon cell towers temporarily until ESVBA installed fiber optic cable and established a permanent connection.

The project had two benefits: it provided free, public Wi-Fi, and it built broadband infrastructure so nearly 200 families can more easily afford high-speed internet in their homes in the future.

Northampton County Administrator Charlie Kolakowski noted that public Wi-Fi hotspots are temporary solutions and the county’s overall goal is for residents to have broadband access at home.

People sitting in parked cars, completing their work and homework over public Wi-Fi is not a longterm solution to the issue of high-speed internet access, he said.

Eastern Shore Community College President James Shaeffer shared the results of a recent survey of ESCC students, which indicated high-speed internet is among their top technology needs.

Almost all students surveyed said they own at least one device such as a laptop computer or smartphone; 76% own more than two devices, and 27% own five devices. About 48% of the students share a device with someone at home.

Connecting multiple devices to the internet simultaneously reduces the quality of the service, Shaeffer noted.

Only 10% of students have no internet access. “However, they were very quick to indicate that the quality of the internet was not always as high as they needed it,” Shaeffer said.

Students said the main reason they need broadband is to play videos.

About 48% of students said they have good quality internet, but 46% said they have poor internet service.

Pastor David Sabatino pointed out that high-speed internet also must be affordable. About 20% of the Eastern Shore lives in poverty, and 30% of its residents are ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed), or the “working poor,” he said.

ESVBA Executive Director Robert Bridgham said the broadband authority has new rates around $100 a month for small businesses, which could be offered to churches.

ESVBA also offers a micro-community program. Two or more people whose homes are near each another can apply to get broadband connection and service at a reduced cost.

Spectrum Director of Government Affairs Eric Collins said his company offers broadband for $17.99 a month for qualifying low-income applicants.

Neubeam Executive Vice President of Sales Barry Toser added that “Neubeam is still here” and operating in more than 50 service areas covering 60 miles, including Eastern Shore necks and other out-of-the-way places.

Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Robie Marsh commended the internet providers for “working extremely hard to roll out broadband access to the entire Shore … as quickly as humanly possible.”

High-speed internet access at Eastern Shore homes, businesses, and public Wi-Fi hotspots has “drastically increased” since around 2017.

But a lack of broadband on the Shore persists, for which there is no “silver bullet … other than a blank check,” Marsh said.

The lack of residential broadband puts the Eastern Shore at a disadvantage when students are getting their education and when they graduate and decide where they want to live and work.

Local businesses struggle to hire and retain talented employees, and new businesses are reluctant to locate or expand on the Shore.

Affordable, widely available broadband is the “best form of low impact, sustainable economic development that we could have here on the Shore,” Marsh said.

“We also live in a world where you can work on the Shore in your own house, in a small office, for a company in a big city, earning big-city wages – and then at the same time have a lower cost of living because you live here on the Shore … spending those savings back in the local economy, supporting our local businesses,” Marsh said.

“And all of this can help keep our rural nature and can give us all a better quality of life.”