RD186 - Report on Commonwealth Connect 2.0: Governor Northam’s 2020 Plan to Connect Virginia

Executive Summary:

A. How the program works

The Commonwealth broadband team will work with local governments and groups of local governments to identify gaps in coverage within those localities and develop a plan to fill those gaps. Current providers, critical partners in delivering service to unserved areas, are incentivized to share their coverage areas during this process in order to avoid overbuilding.

The team will also oversee newly-resourced grant programs to make one-time capital grants to address the fundamental math problem preventing the private sector from extending service itself: in many places the cost of building broadband infrastructure is greater than the revenue that can be gained by serving that area.

The Commonwealth broadband team will continue to work with the Governor to refine executive branch policies and procedures, and the General Assembly on issues best-addressed by legislation in order to reduce barriers to broadband access.

The team will support the development of local government applications to grant programs overseen by the Commonwealth broadband team as well as federal grant programs, to fund gaps in existing coverage, with each region competing for funds on the basis of the most efficient use of funds on a state-dollar-per-connected-premises basis.

B. The scope of the problem and making a plan

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, early attempts by the broadband team to gauging the scope of the problem was a statistical estimate and did not represent a householded number. Recent federal, state, and third party data collection and survey efforts suggest that the most conservative estimate of the number of necessary connections remaining is 365,632.(*2)

In each locality or region, the Commonwealth broadband team will act as advisors to local governments and groups of local governments to assist them in 1) finding partner ISPs with whom they can develop a plan; 2) determine likely costs for such a universal coverage plan; and 3) establish and include in any planning effort those assets the community or communities may have to support such a plan.

C. Investing in Virginia’s broadband effort

Virginia will need to increase 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 30.

1. Increase VATI Funding to at least $35 million for each succeeding year: the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI) is 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. These investments are essential to keeping Virginia on track for complete coverage.

2. Ensure that the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission continues its last-mile program: 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.

D. Summary of policy recommendations

Deployment of broadband in the aggressive fashion necessary to accomplish the Governor’s goal will require:

Non-legislative policy changes:

1. Ensure DGS Acts as a Single Point of Contact for Land Use: Currently DGS handles requests to cite telecommunications facilities on Commonwealth-owned land, but greater transparency and clarity is required.

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.

2020 Legislative recommendations:

1. Create communications access for grandfathered prescriptive easements: Currently, many utility companies in rural Virginia have access to their utility poles only under the property law principle of prescriptive easement, meaning they have access to another’s property, in this instance, only for the purposes for which they initially gained access, provision of electrical service. This can cause significant delay to negotiate access by telecom companies on to existing utility poles on private property. If we were to broaden utility pole easements to include any telecom services we could solve a major deployment problem for the industry.

(*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) This figure is based on industry data, federal data, and the Commonwealth’s own grant-making efforts. It is the result of [Most conservative number of needed connections based on industry data, the census, and statistical analyses: 500,000] – [State grant funded connections to date: 47,000 from TRRC and 51,200 from VATI ] – [Federally-funded grant connections: 32,660 from CAF2] – [Self-reported industry connections made without grant funding: 3508 connections made by electric cooperatives] = 365,632. We know that major telecom companies have also been expanding on their own, but we are unable to capture that data so, in the interest of conservative budgeting, it is not reflected here.