Because King George already has an in-ground fiber optic cable network providing broadband to schools, county officials are asking the federal government to grant permission for them—and other localities in the same situation—to let households without internet access it during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But as with many things with the federal government, it’s not that simple.
The E-rate grant program that helped fund the purchase and installation of underground fiber several years ago mandates that it’s for schools and libraries only. In King George, the program consisted of laying fiber from Sealston Elementary School, south on Fletcher’s Chapel Road to State Route 3, east all the way to King George Elementary, then up State Route 205 to U.S. 301 and north on Dahlgren Road to Potomac Elementary.
Because the program was established by Congress, Federal Communications Commission officials said its regulations can be waived only through an act of Congress. So that’s what the King George Board of Supervisors has requested.
“There seems to be little appreciation for the fact that the ‘physical classroom’ is no longer in the school,” said at-large Supervisor Annie Cupka, who’s discussed the matter with county staff, elected representatives and FCC officials. “Local school boards ought to be able to access their own fiber networks to work in partnership with their localities and internet service providers to meet the needs of the children they serve, where the children are learning—at home or at a childcare provider,”
Cupka shared her research with fellow board members Tuesday, who unanimously agreed to have County Administrator Neiman Young draft a letter to King George’s representatives the next day.
Rep. Rob Wittman, R–1st District, said his office would continue working with the FCC on “a legislative fix that expands high-speed broadband so that students can access the educational materials they need during the pandemic.”
At least one-fourth of King George students have no internet access at all or a connection so slow that it doesn’t support streaming or “live learning,” Cupka said. She said students and their parents have struggled with classwork and job duties since the pandemic struck in March.
King George is home to about 2,000 contractors and employees associated with Naval Support Facility Dahlgren—and many workers there have been directed to telework through the end of this year, Cupka said. She knows of households where both parents work at Dahlgren—or one works there and the other teaches in King George—and all are trying to do their jobs and help with their children’s education.
“All trying to learn and teach and work at the same time, on the same connection, usually their home internet,” Cupka said. “These are workers whose jobs are critical to the defense of our nation.”
Other supervisors said they thought that the fiber network could be accessed by other entities after a certain time, but FCC officials said that isn’t the case. The fiber network is designed for use by schools and libraries only, in perpetuity.
“That’s why we want to see if we can get our congressional delegation to intervene on our behalf, on everyone’s behalf,” Cupka said. “This is an asset already in the ground, being used, just not being used as widely or efficiently as it could be.”
FCC staff members told county officials, including Cupka, Young and IT Director Chris Dines that other localities had asked for access to their fiber networks as more schools moved to virtual learning.
Stafford County schools recently embarked on a pilot project in the Hartwood area to provide free broadband for students without internet access in rural and low-income areas. Stafford also put in underground fiber optic cable as part of a different grant project that started in 2008, and its program allows the fiber to be used by schools, public safety workers and the county.
A private internet provider is partnering with Stafford officials to connect the existing network to households with students who don’t have access. Cupka shared that information with Wittmann and FCC officials, saying King George would like to do the same.
“If we can’t make this happen now, given the extraordinary circumstances we find ourselves in,” she wrote in an email, “there won’t ever be another opportunity for rural localities like ours to demand that the federal government step up and do the right thing here.”
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425