RD109 - Report on Commonwealth Connect: Governor Northam’s Plan to Connect Virginia

Executive Summary:

A. The scope of the problem

Existing maps, including some mandated by the federal government, are not reliable to assess the extent of broadband coverage and gaps in that coverage. (*1) Private-sector providers are also reluctant to offer what they consider proprietary data within their coverage maps. As a result, the first attempt at gauging the scope of the problem has been estimated. It appears that there are around 660,000 homes and businesses needing connections.(*2) This will be refined as new data is collected via local planning efforts. More detail on where broadband is available can be found on page nine and a detailed look at the scoping analysis can be found on page 11.

B. Summary of policy recommendations

Deployment of broadband in the aggressive fashion necessary to accomplish the Governor’s goal will necessitate three things beyond general coordination and program management improvements:

1) Significantly increased state financial support for the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (“VATI") program and future efforts to reduce the cost of broadband infrastructure, totaling at least $250 million over the coming 10 years; 2) Enactment of policy changes that reduce the cost of private-sector broadband infrastructure; and 3) Support for local governments in the creation of strategic local planning around a shared goal of functionally universal access.

Non-legislative policy changes:

1. Create Index of Vertical and other Potentially Valuable Assets: The Commonwealth will create an index of publicly controlled, state and local vertical assets, property, and rights of way sufficient to blanket VA in wireless signals.

2. Request and Support Local Broadband Plans: Require that a locality have adopted a granular plan for universal broadband coverage within 10 years, in order to access state funding support.

3. Ensure VDOT continues to improve its conduit policy: VDOT should expand its “dig once" policy to include more robust conduit installation and availability.

4. Ease attachment of wireless equipment to state property: Require that all new state-owned buildings are designed to allow for towers or other vertical assets to which fixed wireless equipment may be attached or located on the premises at low or no cost.

Legislative recommendations:

1. Leverage a smart grid for middle-mile service: Implementation of this idea will be complex, and may require additional development, but legislation permitting electric utilities to lease additional communications capacity in unserved areas, created during the construction of a “smart grid" will dramatically lower the costs of service provision.

2. Create a FOIA exemption for DHCD’s VATI program: Proprietary information submitted to the VATI program should be shielded from disclosure.

3. Give budgetary “rollover" permission to the VATI program: Making the VATI funding non-reverting will improve funded programs through efficiencies of scale.

C. Invest in Virginia’s Broadband Effort

In addition to policy changes, Virginia will need to change what it invests in broadband access to achieve functionally universal broadband coverage within a decade. Details related to scoping and how increased funding will be deployed can be found in on page 27.

1. Increase VATI Funding to at least $50 million for each succeeding year: the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative should be seen as the primary vehicle by which Virginia is incentivizing the creation of new infrastructure in areas where it hasn’t been previously economically efficient for the private sector to do so. This will keep Virginia on track for complete coverage.

2. Ensure that the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission continues its last-mile program, allocating at least $5 million annually: The Tobacco Commission has been a key player in rural broadband deployment, and can continue to supplement state efforts by increasing the speed at which connections are made within its footprint.

3. Provide additional funding for the Office of Broadband Assistance for the purpose of increasing local planning capacity: This is a necessary funding component of the requirement that local comprehensive plans include plans for universal broadband coverage. This funding could come from VATI, provided it is in the context of a local planning grant and if the General Assembly includes language authorizing such in the budget. Between increased capacity in the Office of Broadband Assistance, as well as availability of other funding for technical assistance and planning grants to hire consultants, the broadband plan requirement is not an unfunded mandate and will yield both leverage for state/local efforts and invaluable data.

D. How the program works

When all of these elements come together – state-funded local plans that identify specific needs, costs, and scoping; robust state funding to support infrastructure construction; leveraging of utility infrastructure to reduce the cost of many hard-to-reach areas; and coordination of all efforts through a state-level broadband team – the Commonwealth should be able to close the broadband connection gap within the timeframe Governor Northam is seeking.
(*1) Federal maps compiled by the FCC suffer from an insufficient granularity as well as potentially misleading coverage areas. This is discussed in more detail later in this report.
(*2) Virginians without access to high-quality broadband connections, and an unknown associated number of businesses. Given the need to connect both homes and businesses, the initial scoping assumes that combining disconnected Virginians into households will be offset by the need to connect businesses, leaving the number of necessary connections at 660,000.