Sam Brumberg – Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives and Association of Broadband Cooperatives
Think about this: in the U.S., such inequality exists that one student in high school has high-speed internet at home while another student in the same school in the same grade must sit in a McDonald’s parking lot to access the web.
The Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Broadband Cooperatives is doing everything possible to bring high-speed broadband to rural communities in those three mid-Atlantic states.
“You can drive an hour outside of Washington, D.C., our nation’s capital, or an hour outside Richmond, and there is no high-speed internet,” says Sam Brumberg, the organization’s vice president of regulatory affairs and general counsel. “That is something we’re working to change.”
Sixteen electric cooperatives serve over two million people in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, and the VMDAEC and VMDABC are there to support those consumer-owned, state-regulated electric utilities and their broadband affiliates. The organization’s services include lobbying and hosting trade shows that allow member co-ops to meet with vendors.
Several years ago, Brumberg helped create a separate association for broadband cooperatives, the VMDABC, partly because high-speed internet service providers and policymakers frequently overlook rural customers like those served by electric cooperatives.
“Everyone is working hard to bridge the digital divide that exists in our states and across the country,” he says. “We want to ensure that the laws that govern that bridge-building work are set up for success.”
Equal access to high-speed internet
Providing high-speed internet to everyone in America is a capital-intensive project requiring much time and money. Brumberg notes that it is not that unlike the rural electrification work completed in the 1930s and 1940s—bringing broadband to rural communities is the largest infrastructure project since the New Deal.
For years, companies have found it economically unviable to invest in these areas, leading to a need for government intervention and support. Brumberg supports the idea of low-interest loans, grants, and public-private partnerships to make broadband accessible to rural communities.
“The cooperative model is crucial for bringing broadband to rural areas, and the principle of cooperation amongst cooperatives along with a not-for-profit, people-driven business model contributes to our cooperatives’ success,” he says. “Our association works towards building consensus and addressing the needs of our members.”
After the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was passed, Brumberg says utilities thought they could do telecom better than telecom companies. The so-called “Utelcos” were all the rage in the 2000s. It was not the case then, but now, in the rural and underserved markets, rural electric cooperatives are bringing telecom solutions to these areas. Many of the electric cooperatives have subsidiaries for their broadband businesses, and the VMDABC presents a unified voice for the co-ops.
Advocating for advocates
In his role as general counsel, Brumberg handles general legal matters for the associations, including HR, corporate governance, and tax matters. Additionally, he has developed niche expertise in pole attachment, net energy metering, and related regulatory issues for the cooperatives.
There is no guarantee that a person with access to high-speed internet will be professionally and/or financially successful, but there are plenty of studies out there that show a direct correlation between having access and being successful.
“Being able to browse the web, complete school assignments, or work remotely should not be a luxury or something only available to people living in big cities or suburban areas,” Brumberg says.
The VMDAEC and VMDABC do a lot for their member cooperatives, and Brumberg plays a pivotal role in the organization’s outreach and support. The VMDABC’s premier event, the Rural Fiber Expo, drew nearly 300 guests in its third year, including Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares.
“The expo has grown significantly over the years, and we’re excited to see that continue and to bring more people together to support this important cause,” he adds.
Serving the community
Brumberg grew up outside Richmond in Short Pump, Virginia, where he now lives with his wife, a middle school social studies teacher, and stepson. He always had an interest in law but didn’t foresee working in this legal realm while an undergrad.
He earned a degree in political science from the University of Richmond and a J.D. from the College of William & Mary’s Marshall-Wythe School of Law.
He spent nearly six years as an associate for an AmLaw 200 firm and joined VMDAEC as association counsel in July 2012. He was elevated to his current position in January 2022.
“I always knew I would go to law school, and in my early legal career, I was doing utility and regulatory law,” Brumberg says. “I had an attorney-mentor with a large utility company who took me under his wing.”
While Brumberg was good at his work as a law firm attorney, he was doing the same work for the same clients—the law firm life includes working long days and nights to hit a certain billable hour quota.
“Moving in-house was a professional lifesaver for me,” Brumberg says. “Moving to an internal position has dramatically improved my quality of life.”
He is passionately committed to improving the quality of life for lawyers through his service on the board of the Virginia Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program, where he was a board member for six years.
Brumberg says he was honored to be nominated to a judgeship on the Virginia State Corporation Commission in 2020. The Virginia regulator, one of two similar regulatory commissions in the U.S., combining judicial, legislative, administrative and corporate functions in a single agency, was another of Brumberg’s early experiences in utility law; he worked there as a summer law clerk while in law school.
While he ultimately didn’t receive that appointment, his being considered for the position was a testament to his expertise, professional accomplishments, and the high esteem in which the Virginia General Assembly holds the electric cooperative community.
The work of Brumberg and everyone at VMDAEC and VMDABC is crucial for America’s long-term prosperity. Approximately 20 percent of the U.S. needs access to high-speed internet, but Brumberg knows that universal coverage is achievable.
“I cannot give an exact time frame on when everyone will have access, but it is coming in due time,” he says. “Now and in the future, we’ll have increasingly more smart devices in our homes that rely on these high-speed connections. It’ll happen soon.”
And until then, Brumberg may be found on his back porch, smoking cigars, typing on his laptop and advocating for rural communities.
View this feature in the Vanguard Winter II 2024 Edition here.
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