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Rep. Denver Riggleman: Bringing Internet to Rural Areas

(Photo by Norm Shafer/ For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

If you have to take your kids and you have to go into a parking lot of a library in order to do homework, that is not something that they want to have to deal with.”

Rep. Denver Riggleman represents Virginia’s Fifth Congressional District, having been elected in 2018. In this interview, Rep. Riggleman joins Merion West‘s Erich Prince to discuss his efforts to bring better broadband access to rural communities, particularly in Virginia’s Fifth District. Additionally, Rep. Riggleman takes a moment to describe a few other priorities he has been working on during his first year in office, and he also comments on other issues facing those living in rural Virginia, including the opioid crisis.

Before we hop into discussing rural broadband specifically, I wanted to ask you about some of the priorities you outlined in January—during your first couple of days in office—when you first spoke with us. You discussed three major areas of focus for you: healthcare, immigration, and taxes. Now, nine months later—well into your first year in office, how are you seeing these issues now, and where’s your head been when it comes to these priorities?

It’s interesting you ask about that; I was pretty confident that we could do some things—at least present some ideas on these topics. Let’s start with health care; the first thing I did was I put in a bill to switch healthcare pre-existing conditions protection from ACA over to HIPAA. I’m pretty excited about this bill. It’s something that some people had tried to work on during the 115th Congress. We were able to tweak the bill and make it our own because I believe that—if there are attacks on the ACA or if the ACA goes away—one of the good things about ACA—and there isn’t a whole lot of them—was the preexisting conditions protection. So, we have a bill right now that moves preexisting condition protections from the ACA over to HIPAA.

What are you hearing from your constituents when it comes to this bill? 

I would say it’s hard to understand the bill because what it simply did was move those protections over where you cannot be let go from your insurance based on preexisting conditions. It’s based on community ratings—but very specific community ratings: for pricing, for that type of specific protection. So, when I talk to people about it, there seems to be some real excitement because it’s a new idea, and it’s something that gets away from talking about the ACA and moves those protections into, I believe, a more permanent framework.

Now moving into our main topic of discussion, which is rural broadband—I’m wondering if you could just talk a bit more, like you did in your June House floor speech, about rural broadband and why it’s so important for many of your constituents in Virginia’s 5th district? 

When you have a district that is over 10,000 square miles and that’s 65 percent rural, connectivity is a problem. It’s not only Internet—but also wireless, and it’s cell towers. All of the above are a problem in these rural areas. What we did was make it a priority that we got on the rural broadband train. The first thing I did was I joined the Rural Broadband Caucus. Number two, we got amendments in place to increase the amount of money for block grants for rural broadband—and also for private-public partnership loan grant programs, which I’m very proud of. We instituted training for the USDA reconnect programs in the 5th District. Our district offices did training for companies on how to access the loan grant programs within the USDA, FCC, and all. We’re pretty excited about what we’ve done, and we’ve been very aggressive.

In July, I followed the press release your office had about this new 27.1-million-dollar investment. This must be something you’re excited about.

Oh, I am—and not only that 27.1 million dollars investment. The Central Virginia Electric Co-op created a subsidiary called Firefly for broadband specifically, and they just submitted an application for a $28 million private-public loan grant for the 5th district, so I’m pretty excited about that, with their specific subscriber area. We have been incredibly aggressive in the broadband space—but also looking at new technologies. 

This is a really cool thing, Erich. As you know, I have a technology background, so we’ve been looking at things like: can you have cell towers in space? There are companies out there right now working on that. And then, there’s low Earth orbit satellites that have been deployed with mobile transmitters on those satellites. We’re looking at everything: 5G in space: how we can look at low coverage areas for not only rural broadband and wireless but also for cell phones? Everything we’re trying to do is sort of an “all of the above” strategy for technology growth in the 5th District. And again, just with my technology background, I think that’s been helpful for me going forward but also working with FCC, USDA, and private data suppliers to see where those gaps are.

I was interviewing Governor Kemp in Georgia last month, and he was talking a lot about how he sees the rural broadband issue in Georgia as related to making rural communities more competitive in both education for young people and in workforce economic growth with more urban areas. I’m wondering if you see what he described in Georgia playing out similarly for Virginia’s 5th district.

It’s very similar. Governor Kemp is on it because what we have right now is that we have multiple things that we need to fix for, say, telehealth and telecounseling, for example.

I saw that’s a major part of, for example, the VA MISSION Act and certain veterans’ health care initiatives in rural areas. 

Yes, that’s a great segue. That’s exactly what we have to do. If you look at suicide prevention, connectivity is very important. We came up with a strategy called, “Consecutive Miracles.” When I was in the military, Erich: if you ran out of a certain type of munition, you can actually dig a hole with the munitions to try to get to a certain place, but you have to fire the weapons in very specific regions. We call it consecutive miracles because multiple weapons have to hit the same place over and over again. Thinking with an economic consecutive miracle strategy—and that strategy is how do we fix the issues with economic growth, whether it’s infrastructure, rural broadband, wireless solutions, cell tower placement, satellite solutions. How do we do all of that—all of these consecutive miracles—and create economic opportunity for people of the 5th district and for rural areas. 

So, the governor’s correct. All of these things stack up, and once you have that, people are going to want to move into these areas because the first thing parents ask when they go into a school district is: “What’s the connectivity?” “What’s the education like?” “What’s the infrastructure like?” If you have to take your kids and you have to go into a parking lot of a library in order to do homework, that is not something that they want to have to deal with. So, he’s exactly right. And that’s what we’ve been working on: how do we create these consecutive miracles within these districts in order for economic growth to happen—but also to help with health care, education, emergency services, and business growth.

Also in the rural context, you’ve talked a lot about combating opioid situations and making that a leading priority of yours.

Right now, as you know, I’m on the Freshman Working Group on Addiction. We’ve been successful in delivering block grants to the states to fight addiction—not only for law enforcement, but also for education and rehabilitation. Your question is very fortuitous because it is National Recovery Month. I’m wearing purple today for those recovering from addiction, so we’ve made that a priority in Congress. That is also another consecutive miracle that we have to work on, and again it comes back to infrastructure and economic growth. All of this is to combat not only the opioid crisis—but the [broader] addiction crisis we have. Right now, in my district, meth and cocaine are skyrocketing. And some of that has to do with the cartel activity.

So, it’s not only opioids.

No, not only opioids. We have heroin, but also meth and cocaine have been absolutely a scourge in our community based on cartel activity. We have a lot of law enforcement issues, and that’s why I’ve submitted two applications and am getting help with this for high intensity drug trafficking areas in the Commonwealth called HIDTAs. I’m very happy about that too, and again, that’s part of the consecutive miracle strategy on law enforcement, rehabilitation, and education. It’s part of the infrastructure strategy on broadband and connectivity. If we do all of this, rural areas will be able to grow in a way they’ve never seen before.

The last topic I want to bring up, Congressman, is about your district, which, as you mentioned, is 65 percent rural. But your district also has more densely populated areas like Charlottesville and Danville. There’s a lot of discussion, on the part of commentators, about the interplay between rural and urban communities in the United States. Sometimes this type of framing concerns me a bit—when journalists seem to conceive of “rural Americans” rather monolithically. With that said, what do you see as the relationship between say Charlottesville and more rural parts of your district? 

I have a district that is 10,000 square miles, and there is a difference between Charlottesville and Kenbridge, Virginia—not only in median family income but also in the industries that they support. In Southside Virginia, they were booming in textiles up into the 1980’s. So I don’t think we really characterize anybody as rural, urban, or suburban. I think there were people that have specific types of skills, and we need all of them. That’s why I’ve been a little bit disturbed when people try to package [groups of people].

Yes, I think that some of the terminology can be a little reductive in a sense.

It is, and I can tell you this right now—if you go down say and you talk to Jim Saunders of Saunders’ farm, which has hundreds of employees in Nelson County, Virginia—someone might say, “Oh this guy is a rural farmer.” It’s incredibly exquisite, the business that he has there, and it’s also comprehensive and interweaved because he has to vertically integrate a massive manufacturing force there. So, I find it a little bit funny—and a little bit odd—that people want to group or stereotype [others] based on where they’re living. What you see, though, is if you have a lot more money pumped into government areas, like for instance, I have the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Ground Intelligence Center in my district, in Charlottesville; connectivity is great there because the government is pumping hundreds of millions of dollars—not only for analysis and technology but also for military construction contracts—into the area. So what I have to do is I have to make sure that everybody is on the same page when it comes to economic growth, so I try not to separate that there’s one that’s different from the other—or that there’s a difference between rural and suburban voters. My thing is: what do they have to offer as a baseline for economic growth?

So, you see [the perceived division] as more an economic question of jobs and such?

It is—because if you have high speed Internet in beautiful Franklin County, Virginia or certain places in Franklin, Mecklenburg, or Pennsylvania county, you have all these incredible places. If you have high speed Internet there—and you have the infrastructure to support it—people would be there. So, I do believe that you have to have a baseline infrastructure for business growth. I’ve owned companies, so I think I understand that, and I think private-public partnerships in all of these communities is the way to go. People don’t want no government; they want good efficient government, and I think efficient government [coupled] with private industry can do some great things.

Thank you for your time, Congressman. It’s good to hear about some of the priorities you’ve been working on since you touched base with us in January.

Thank you, Erich.

Erich J. Prince is the editor at Merion West. Erich has contributed to a variety of publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hartford Courant, The News & Observer, the Orlando Sentinel, and The Hill. His opinion writing has been honored with two awards from the Columbia University School of Journalism. He studied political science at Yale, completing his thesis on the history of polarization in the United States Congress.

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