Sin tax proposed to fund more internet

A member of the Louisa County Board of Supervisors is seeking authority from the Virginia General Assembly to impose a “sin tax” to help with rural broadband coverage. 

Fitzgerald Barnes (Patrick Henry district) said that he favors raising taxes on cigarettes and alcohol to pay for more fiber-optic cable lines in the county.  

“I’ve talked with our legislative liaison, and I want the General Assembly to allow us the same tax authority they give to towns and cities to put that money towards broadband,” he said.

David Blount, Thomas Jefferson Regional Planning District legislative liaison, said that currently only two counties in Virginia have the authority to tax cigarettes.

“As a condition, this tax revenue has to go to something specific, like broadband,” he said. “Having it tied to something specific like that is more politically attractive.

“We would still have to have a Virginia state legislator draft a bill with that specific language and bring it before the General Assembly, and that would take some time,” Blount said.

Barnes emphasized that his goal is not to raise more funding for the wireless towers the county is building, but for fiber.

“The county has some fiber already, and I want to expand coverage and connectivity,” he said.

The Louisa County Board of Supervisors is expected to discuss the idea with the county’s General Assembly delegation at a Sept. 16 work session.

Barnes is responding to recent efforts by private and public organizations, notably that of Central Virginia Electric Cooperative. The company plans to offer high-speed internet via fiber to customers in 14 counties in Virginia, including in the western part of Louisa County.

Louisa County government and the county’s public schools recently installed fiber along several primary roads. The schools are benefiting from improved service now, while the county is exploring whether to lease the fiber for a private company to sell broadband to end users.

The county’s plan to install a system of connected wireless towers across the county is progressing, with four towers built at Moss-Nuckols, Jouett and Trevilians elementary schools and Louisa County High School and a fifth planned in Holly Grove. This “backhaul” network of radio antennas will enable wireless internet service providers to broadcast to customers in their homes.

The county is also locating broadband equipment on public safety towers in Zion Crossroads and Gordonsville and on a privately-owned tower in Yanceyville.

Jim Ogg, a non-voting member of the Louisa County Broadband Authority, said at its Sept. 4 meeting that he was concerned by what he perceives as the lack of communication from and oversight of SCS Broadband, the wireless provider that has a contract to offer service from the towers.

“I just think we need to know what the plan is going forward,” he said.

Clay Stewart, SCS Broadband chief operating officer, said he understands Ogg’s anxiety. He said that in the high-speed world of technology, a monthly update is sometimes not enough.

“I think with all the pressure from the public and the media, they would need a report once a week,” he said. “But then I’d never get anything done.”

Stewart said that his company spent the beginning of the month field-testing service at one of the school towers, and that everything appears to be in order.

“We’re averaging one tower going online every week throughout all the counties we cover,” he said. “So we’re not able to get everyone [covered], but we can get a lot of them.” 

Other authority members said that they need to be careful they don’t overstep the scope of their work. Mary Johnson, the Louisa district representative, said the group should remember what its goals have been since the beginning.

“Our job was to build the infrastructure, and we did that,” she said. “We built the interstate. We’re not in the business of building cars to put on the interstate, or driving people around.” 

Next month’s meeting of the broadband authority is scheduled for Wednesday, October 2.