The Broadband Effect

How an 85% spike in Nelson County homes sales could be a sign of the future of life in Central Virginia

During the Super Bowl last weekend, while a record number of sports fans placed their bets on the game [thanks to the wide-spread legalization of sports betting, including in Virginia], American businesses made their bets on the future with their commercial messaging, and apparently it's one that requires a lot of bandwidth.

In addition to a general theme of embracing the new -- electric cars, public space travel, fast food places embracing sustainability -- almost all the high-priced ads told stories about the internet and cell phone networks providing liberation and independence, from food delivery apps, car delivery apps, online tax filing, online shopping, computer equipment, a glucose-monitoring app, an online job site, online investing apps, online tax filing, streaming services, cell phone carriers offering strong signals, and an online freelancer marketplace. Squarespace, which allows you to create your own website, even flipped the script on a classic Dolly Parton song, encouraging people to go online “5 to 9” and create a website and change their lives. Oh, and perhaps the biggest winner of the night, besides the Bucs and CBS, online sports betting companies.

Of course, this has a lot to do with the pandemic, which has required us to rely on the internet more than ever, but it is also a sign of where we're at and where we're headed -- into a future where access to reliable internet, like water and electricity, will be an increasingly essential service.

And who knows what that future holds. Maybe someday we'll be teleporting ourselves around the world through some version of the internet. Actually, physicists are studying something referred to as "quantum entanglement," which could theoretically transfer information, even matter, across points in the universe. Meanwhile, Facebook has an intuitive to beam internet from the sky using solar-powered drones, Google has a project called Loon, which would use giant balloons to broadcast internet from the edge of space, and SpaceX just started selling internet service linked to its satelites.

For folks living in rural America, however, those present day realities and fantasy futures are still out of reach.

In a Charlottesville Tomorrow story last August about rural schools struggling to provide reliable internet service for school children during COVID, Christopher Ali, an associate professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, and a researcher on broadband issues, painted a grim picture: “Broadband is a private market. There’s no return on investment in rural areas. It’s too expensive, too spread out, so rural places are just ignored.”

According to the latest report from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, 21 Americans million lack access to strong broadband internet access. “I worked in a refugee camp in Lesbos, in Greece, and I could walk down the street and connect with broadband to my husband…” says a social worker in rural Maine, who uses telehealth technology, in an excellent piece in the Harvard Kennedy School's Journalists Resource [Rural broadband in the time of coronavirus].

“I couldn’t do that here,” she says.

What’s worse, experts like UVA’s Ali say that there are millions of more Americans without reliable internet service than the FCC reports. Industry watchdog Broadband Now puts the figure at 42 million.

Indeed, that grim outlook was shared by members of the Virginia Broadband Advisory Council at a meeting in December, who worry that private telecommunication companies, which operate most of Virginia's internet infrastructure, have no incentive to build expensive networks in rural areas, and that even if they do, most people can't afford the service.

However, a recent report by the Charlottesville Area Association of Realtor’s suggests there could be some glimmer of hope for a return on investment in rural broadband, thanks to one local County that placed a bet on its future years ago:

Home sales were up 46% compared to the same time last year, especially in rural areas, a trend across the country during the pandemic, but the most striking part of the report involved Nelson County, where home sales jumped a whopping 85% and sale prices jumped 34% compared to 2019.

“We haven’t studied it, but anecdotally I think a lot has to do with the investment in broadband and the increased ability during the pandemic for people to work remotely,” CAAR President Quinton Beckham told the Daily Progress.

For Waldo Jaquith, a technologists and member of the Albemarle Broadband Authority who [speaking in his capacity as a private citizen of Albemarle County] has been following the development of local broadband efforts for years, that’s an understatement.

"The combination of broadband and remote work is a big deal," he says. "The age of the remote worker has been hastened by COVID. There’s no putting that genie back in the bottle.”

Indeed, last November, State Farm Insurance announced that it was closing its office on Pantops and allowing all 800 employees who drove into the office there to work from home. Likewise, many other local businesses and non-profits that have allowed remote work during the pandemic are likely to find themselves offering that option permanently, while new businesses may find it an attractive option to hire employees willing to live in surrounding counties.

"Nelson did the work. Nelson made the investment," says Jaquith. "And they have shot past Albemarle County as a result, and that’s all paying for itself in property taxes."

"Nelson has done an amazing job rolling out broadband," says UVA’s Ali, who also mentions that he has launched a survey with all Virginia counties to develop a better picture of what’s going on across the commonwealth, " and I hope indeed it’s an indication of more to come."

Back in 2005 the County began the hard work of trying to figure out how to bring broadband to residents, got a few state planning grants to do so, and eventually forming the Nelson County Broadband Authority [NCBA]. Then, in 2010, they got a $1.8 million grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA’s) Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) and began to build out a fiber network.

In December the NCBA finalized a deal with Firefly Fiber Broadband, a subsidiary of Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, to make fiber internet available to every building in the county with electrical service by 2024. Already, there's a 39-mile publicly owned fiber network running through the county.

While Nelson County should be applauded for having the foresight to make these investments, it’s not like folks didn’t see the importance of building these networks coming.

“I was saying this 10 years ago,” says Baylor Fooks, co-founder of Blue Ridge InternetWorks. “We served as the first Network Operator on Nelson’s network. It took a lot of work from county staff and the resolve to ignore all the complaints about how the government should not be “interfering” with the private sector, but look at the result.”

Indeed, there have been a lot of promises made over the years - by politicians, local government and school officials, tech company leaders - about bringing broadband to our rural areas, but so far the spike in real estate sales in Nelson County has been the only concrete sign of progress.

“The board of supervisors in Nelson retained their vision and focus for years,” says Jaquith, “ and now they’ve got publicly owned broadband for three quarters of the county, with a clear path to get to universal coverage, a first for a rural county in the U.S.”

“And Albemarle County could have done the same,” Fooks adds.

Albemarle County Schools and The Big Plan

When the FCC gave slices of a government-owned broadband spectrum called Educational Broadband Service, created half a century ago for free educational television, to school districts across the country to create their own wireless internet networks, most school districts at the time, especially those strapped for cash, just sold off their slices to big telecommunications companies offered big money for them. But about five years ago Albemarle County School administrators announced ambitious plans to use our slice of broadband to create a private network for all its students. "Our goal is that within three years all neighborhoods within the whole county will have wireless broadband service,” Vince Scheivert, former chief information officer for Albemarle schools, told Charlottesville Tomorrow in 2015. The effort received much praise and attracted national media attention, like this 2017 piece in Wired Magazine: "Schools Tap Secret Spectrum to Beam Free Internet to Students: Pioneering school districts tap an obscure public asset to put broadband into students’ homes."

"In places like Albemarle County, where school officials estimate up to 20 percent of students lack home broadband, all the latest education-technology tools meant to narrow opportunity and achievement gaps can widen them instead. So, rather than wait for reluctant commercial internet providers to expand their reach, the district is trying an audacious solution. They’re building their own countywide broadband network." - Wired Magazine

However, just before the pandemic started, and after connecting only 100 households in the Southwood neighborhood, the school district abandoned the effort. Christine Diggs, the school division's current chief technology officer, told the Daily Progress that the project "moved slowly due to some realities that evolved," including a lack of staffing, public concern about cell towers on school property, the availability of nearby fiber internet, and the county’s topography.

Ironically, ACPS would end up leasing its slice of the broadband spectrum to Shentel, a Virginia-based high-speed internet provider, the same high-speed internet provider that entered into a recent $700,000 contract with Albemarle County to provide, well, the same kind of high-speed wireless internet service that the old ACPS project planned to provide. ACPS also announced that it would use its Shentel lease money to buy 500 WiFi hotspot devices for students.

Meanwhile, the Albemarle Broadband Authority has a new project in the works with Firefly Fiber Broadband as well, the $230,000 Burchs Creek Road Project, which will create 62 fiber internet locations using money received from the Federal CARES Act. However, Jaquith notes that rural broadband is still expanding very slowly in the County, which he thinks creates "a sort of a ring of uninhabitability for remote workers."

“Orange County is on the same path as Nelson, but about 8 years behind. Here’s hoping Albemarle can catch up,” he says.

The view from Nelson County

Yvette Stafford of Mountain/Nest Realty in Nelson County says that the scarcity of homes in Nelson, and the existence of the Wintergreen Resort property, which has reliable internet, are also drivers of home sales in the area, but she says that the installation of a fiber network is a “game changer."

"Once a property is connected to Firefly, that's a big deal, and a huge marketing tool," she says. "Folks in, say, DC looking to cash out and move to places like Nelson, maybe get a little farmette, they can't make the move until broadband is available. And when it is, they are buying."

Even in Nelson, though, which has a big head-start on other rural locations, the wide-spread availability of broadband can't come soon enough. "There are large sections of the county still waiting to get hooked up to Firefly," says Stafford, who emphasizes that for many people the cost and and problem of access to reliable internet service is a serious issue [Indeed, that is a whole ‘nother article!].

In fact, Stafford says she lives in a "fiber void" in the county and sometimes has to go down to the local recycling center to send files because the wi-fi is better there. She says she recently saw a local high school student zooming a class on the back of his truck at the recycling center.

While broadband for everyone in Nelson County by 2024 is something to look forward to, Stafford said she couldn’t afford to wait, which is why she recently signed up to receive Starlink, the new satellite internet service from SpaceX being billed as the cure for all our internet woes.

However, the system is in its beta phase, and as Jaquith notes, beta testers have said the service currently drops a few times a day [not good for folks on a Zoom calls] and requires a clear, expansive view of the sky [a lot of trees on your property disrupt the service]. Starlink says it intends to fix those problems. Which could be another game changer.

"Starlink is no replacement for fiber," says Jaquith, "and it’s a shame that the area where it could do the most good - rural areas - are areas that tend to have lots of trees. But it’s a big step forward."

What does all this mean for the future of our area?

Of course, with broadband widely available, people lucky enough to have entirely remote positions will be able to live anywhere they want, and it makes sense to move to places with a low cost of living and a high quality of life. As a result, there there will likely be an influx of affluent, fully remote workers to our area, which will effect population, homes prices, etc. But Jaquith thinks that will have a much smaller impact than a potentially larger group of people — partially remote workers who will remain anchored to Charlottesville.

"Somebody who needs to drive to an office every day is likely to want to live within thirty-minutes range," says Jaquith, " but if they only need to drive in once a week — perhaps not even during rush hour — then they might be happy to live an hour away."

Indeed, as Jaquith points out, we've seen population growth in Nelson, Greene, Fluvanna, and Orange because of those counties’ commuting proximity to major employers in Charlottesville and Albemarle. But now, he says, we might see people deciding to live even farther away — Augusta, Rockingham, Buckingham, Louisa, Madison, and greater distances away in Orange, Nelson, Fluvanna, and Greene.

"But, of course, they can live in those places only if reliable broadband is available to them," says Jaquith. " Being a remote worker in the town of Orange is impossible if limited to satellite internet, but once fiber is available there [and there are plans in Orange to do just that], that sounds like a great way to be able to own a 3-bedroom house for $200k."

Should access to the internet be a human right?

While almost no one thinks our internet infrastructure will be run like a public utility anytime soon, a growing state and national policy effort to “close the digital divide” for rural and urban populations alike appears to be gaining momentum.

Commonwealth Connect is Virginia’s comprehensive effort to achieve universal broadband access, a goal set by Governor Ralph Northam in July 2018. And just last month, Northam announced a $29.6 million plan to provide high-speed internet to over 11,000 homes and business across the state.

And just recently, UVA Health received a three-year, $4.4 million Federal Communications Commission grant to serve "underserved groups and patients from rural communities." In addition, at a virtual discussion last week hosted by the University of Virginia’s School of Education and Human Development, which included newly appointed FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel, panelists argued that the nationwide shift to distance learning and health care delivery made reliable internet service an essential service, like water or electricity, with some even saying it should be a "human right in this day and age."

Rosenworcel, the first woman to run the FCC, will oversee billions that were allocated by the recent passage of the federal COVID-19 relief bill for expanding access to broadband internet. The goal, she told the New Yorker recently, “should be reaching a hundred per cent of Americans with high-speed broadband service.”

“That’s not unprecedented,” she said. “We did it before with rural electrification. We now need to do it with digitization.”