Broadband Access in SWVA: The Infrastructure We Need
Joy Bhadury, Ph.D, Professor and Dean, Davis College of Business and Economics, Radford University
To say that challenging times are upon our nation’s health, economy and society would probably be THE understatement
of 2020. Nonetheless, it is important for us to begin with that acknowledgment and ask ourselves: what foundations do
we need to build today to ensure a better tomorrow? As I like to say of the COVID pandemic: it won’t stop our future;
instead, it has brought the future to us ahead of schedule.
As we examine our nation’s economic recovery from the pandemic-induced recession, one of the most insightful articles
I have come across recently is the October 5 article in the Wall Street Journal titled “The Covid Economy Carves Deep Divide
Between Haves and Have-Nots”. Even a cursory reading of the same should give each of us some pause. As the article lays
bare, the economic recovery will continue to accelerate the worrisome trend in our country where those companies and
regions that actively embrace participation in the knowledge economy of today and tomorrow will thrive and grow and
the rest will continue to face ever-greater challenges. So, we should ask ourselves: how do we best equip our organizations
in Southwest Virginia to handle this challenge?
For one answer to this question, let us look to our nation’s history for guidance. Inarguably, the industrial growth in the
U.S. that occurred over the 19th and much of the 20th centuries got a boost on February 28, 1827 with the initiation of the
Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, culminating with the epochal “transportation” union of our country at Promontory Point,
Utah, on May 10, 1869 when the Union Pacific Railroad and the Central Pacific Railroads were connected. Interstate
commerce was greatly facilitated and the rest, to use a well-worn cliché, is history. Similarly, we can also agree that that
the same economic growth was made possible in subsequent decades of the next century when President Eisenhower
signed the The Federal-Aid Highway Act in 1956; else, how could we boast today of a $1.3 trillion transportation and
logistics industry in our country that contributes a full 8.5% to our national GDP?
The knowledge economy of today (and tomorrow) now requires its own “railroad and interstates, a robust and ubiquitous
broadband infrastructure that is accessible and affordable. Build one and just as we saw with the railroads and the
interstates, good ole’ American creativity and innovation will do the rest. For those of us who call Southwest Virginia
home, this remains a particularly important imperative. All you have to do is look at the current state of internet access in
our region (see for example data available in BroadbandNow.com) and you will know what I mean. Further underscoring
the salience of this imperative is that we are at a critical point in time in our economy where such an infrastructure is THE
sine qua non for our region to successfully navigate the knowledge economy.
A logical counter to my hypotheses above is “well, that’s all well and good but where’s the money?” After all, building an
Internet infrastructure is an expensive enterprise. To make matters worse, in contrast to the 1800s and mid-1900s when
public coffers were used to build infrastructure, those coffers are far less robust today. Enter another innovative concept:
Public-Private Partnerships that can be successfully leveraged to build a robust Internet infrastructure in Southwest
Virginia. An excellent outlay of public-private partnerships in building broadband infrastructure is available in a 2016
report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance titled Successful Strategies for Broadband Public-Private Partnerships. As
you will see in that report, examples of such partnerships across U.S.A. run the gamut from entirely public networks
(Chattanooga, Tennessee) to private investment coupled with public support (Austin, Texas).
It matters less which model(s) of public-private partnerships fit(s) best the needs of SWVA counties and municipalities; it
matters only that each adopts one that works best for themselves and moves ahead. The last thing we want and need is
for the dire trends in that WSJ article to hold true for us in a future that has arrived ahead of schedule.