Earlier this month, residents of eight Central and Southside Virginia counties got a belated Christmas present from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The USDA announced it was extending a $48 million loan to a North Carolina-based communications company to install more than 1,200 miles of fiber optic cable to create an internet network that will cover more than 1,800 square miles in the counties of Bedford, Pittsylvania, Halifax, Charlotte, Lunenberg, Mecklenburg, Brunswick and King and Queen counties. By the time the project is complete, about 22,600 homes in the network’s coverage area will have broadband access, according to Bette Brand, the administrator of the USDA’s Rural Business-Cooperative Service.
At the Jan. 9 news conference in Huddleston when the loan was announced, Brand was emphatic about the importance of broadband access to rural America. “When rural America thrives, all of America thrives,” she said. “That can’t happen without reliable broadband access.”
Ironically, Brand is a native of Moneta, which is in the project’s service area, so she knows the needs of this part of the commonwealth. “I grew up about 15 miles from here, so I know the communities that will be impacted.”
The USDA loan is coming through the department’s ReConnect Program, which started in 2018 with the mission of increasing broadband availability in rural America. Wilkes Communications, headquartered in Wilkesboro, N.C., is investing $12 million of its own capital, bringing the total value of the project to $60 million. In addition to the more than 22,000 homes that would gain broadband access, 19 schools, eight community facilities and a hospital in the service area would have the ability to access the internet at broadband speeds.
According to Wilkes Communications CEO Eric Cramer, the project has a six-year completion target. When finished residents and businesses in the service area will have broadband access for an average cost of $75 per month. There are also federal discounts available, which would bring the monthly cost down to $65.
“We want to serve the underserved, and that is what we will be out here doing,” Cramer said. Keeping the rate as affordable as possible is a key goal of both the USDA program and Wilkes Communications. As Cramer put it, “We are trying to provide these services at an affordable rate because we are trying to reach people who often have to choose between buying groceries or paying their bills. These are the people we are trying to help.”
One of the ways to qualify for the federal discount is if a family has children in school who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Edgar Tuck, who represents the Huddleston area on the Bedford County Board of Supervisors, noted that many of his constituents would benefit from the discount. “About 55 percent of families at Huddleston Elementary qualify for free or reduced lunch, so they would qualify for the discount,” he said. This is great news for this area because we have been trying to get affordable and reliable service for a long time.”
In her remarks in Huddleston, the USDA’s Brand made a point we have stressed over and over for years: Broadband access is “equally important as water and electric services,” she said, continuing, “This is not simply a luxury, it is a modern necessity.”
In the depths of the Great Depression in the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt and his advisers took extraordinary steps to pull rural America into the modern era by extending electricity to areas of the country that were, for all intents and purposes, still in the 19th century. Electricity was something only cities and urbanized areas had, and FDR knew rural America would remain mired in poverty if it remained in the dark. Hence the creation of the Rural Electrification Administration in 1936 by Congress with the mission to extend electricity and telephone service to rural America.
Within little more than 15 years, electricity and phone service went from being almost nonexistent in rural America to being commonplace, and the economic benefits and rise in living standards were readily apparent.
Today, broadband access is the equivalent of electrical access. Rural electrification played a large role in making all of America a global economic powerhouse. Rural “broadband-ification,” to coin a word, would be as important economically today. While programs such as ReConnect are important, think what could happen if Washington were to embark on a nationwide effort for broadband similar to the REA 85 years ago. The social and economic impacts are almost beyond imagining.