Technology has the ability to deliver new opportunities for rural areas like ours. New and exciting innovations can increase the availability of services which previously were sparsely provided or nonexistent.
Some of these innovations are not only being deployed here but are being developed and tested here.
Southwest Virginia has been the setting for major achievements in drone technology. In fact, the vehicles that completed America’s first drone delivery at the Remote Area Medical clinic in Wise on July 17, 2015 and the country’s first commercial drone delivery in Christiansburg on October 18, 2019 already belong to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, artifacts in the same collection as the first plane flown by the Wright Brothers and the command module from Apollo 11.
I learned firsthand during a recent visit to Radford University about further pioneering efforts in drone technology. The demonstration I witnessed was a product of work at the university’s Department of Geology. Drones can be used in the place of geological field visits, solving the problems of limited time or reaching inaccessible locations. Applications for this use of drones include preparations for road construction and evaluating mines and quarries.
Universities in our area, including Radford and Virginia Tech, will continue to lead the way in adapting drones for new, practical uses that can improve our lives.
In the future, we may increasingly look to the skies and see drones. Look further beyond them and we may also see a solution to the problem of broadband connectivity – low orbit satellites.
Broadband/Low Earth Orbit
The digital divide between rural and urban areas is a serious public policy challenge. Engaging in almost any aspect of modern life, from the economy to education to leisure to health care, demands reliable internet access. Isolated and remote regions, however, often lack this access, in part due to the expense and difficulty of laying fiber line in these areas.
One creative solution around this problem is to use low orbit satellites to provide broadband access. Companies developing this technology include SpaceX and Amazon.
SpaceX’s project, called Starlink, has been deployed to Wise County as part of a pilot project. I learned more about this endeavor during a briefing in Wise organized by County Clerk of Court Jack Kennedy and featuring school officials and parents.
The partnership between Wise County Public Schools and SpaceX addressed the need for better service in the county, a need which became urgent as the coronavirus pandemic forced students into remote learning. According to the schools’ Director of Technology, Scott Kiser, at the outset of the pandemic, a survey found that 25 percent of student households lacked adequate internet access. Remote learning revealed the real number of student households lacking adequate access to be closer to 40 percent. Students had to find hot spots simply to do their schoolwork.
Starlink’s pilot project in Wise County includes 45 homes, and for them, the parents at the briefing testified that it has been a great asset. The change has not just been from going without service to being served. The service has proven to be good, with speeds above 100 megabits per second comparing well to the Federal Communications Commission standard of 25 megabits per second. The briefing offered positive signals about the pilot project so far.
At present, fiber remains the best option, but low orbit satellites offer quality service now, while completing the buildout of fiber networks would still take years. Choosing “all of the above” for connecting people to the internet offers hope for closing the digital divide. In this effort, competition and innovation in the private sector should be encouraged, and regulation by the government should stimulate deployment.
I came away from the visit to Radford University and the briefing in Wise optimistic about the benefits of these technological tools. The people of our region are hard at work developing, applying, and advocating for new ways to solve longtime problems.
If you have questions, concerns, or comments, call my Abingdon office at 276-525-1405, my Christiansburg office at 540-381-5671, or via email at www.morgangriffith.house.gov.