Gov. Ralph Northam announced Friday that he wants to use $700 million of Virginia’s federal funding under the American Rescue Plan to achieve universal broadband coverage in the state by 2024.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which has required millions of Virginians to work and study at home, has underscored the importance of reliable internet connections.
Northam’s administration said the federal funding, in addition to continuing state investments, will be instrumental in closing the state’s digital divide, in which many rural communities lag the prosperous urban crescent that stretches from Northern Virginia through greater Richmond to Hampton Roads.
“If COVID has taught us anything, it has taught us the importance of universal broadband in our great commonwealth,” whether for virtual learning, telehealth, business opportunities or simply for better quality of life, Northam said Friday in announcing the plan at the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center in Abingdon.
The General Assembly returns to Richmond on Aug. 2 for a special session to determine how to spend the state’s more than $4.3 billion in American Rescue Plan funding.
The proposal would require legislative approval, but leaders of the General Assembly’s money committees appeared with the governor on Friday and said they support the plan.
Northam, who leaves office in January, said the proposed funding means Virginia could reach universal internet access by 2024, four years earlier than his original goal of 2028. He likened the impact of universal broadband to the profound effect of rural electrification in the 1930s.
“This is personal for me,” Northam added. He noted that his family has a small farm on the Eastern Shore, 5 miles outside of the Accomack County town of Onancock. The farm does not have access to broadband.
“It has been a commitment of our administration since I started to make sure that everybody — no matter who you are, no matter where you are in Virginia — has access to broadband,” Northam said.
BroadbandNow reported in June that Virginia, with a population of 8.6 million, is 15th among the states in broadband internet access. It said that while 91% of residents have access to wired broadband internet speeds of at least 25 megabits per second, about 697,000 Virginians don’t have access to wired connections at such speed. It added that 608,000 Virginians have access to only one internet service provider, and 306,000 Virginians don’t have any access to wired internet options.
Northam was joined in Abingdon by U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who worked to include broadband funding in the federal rescue plan, and by key state finance leaders — Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, chair of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee; and Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, head of the House Appropriations Committee.
Broadband funding will now become a key focus of the special session, during which Northam also is expected to propose hundreds of millions of dollars to shore up the state’s mental health system, which has temporarily halted admissions at five state hospitals for lack of staffing.
This week, CNBC again ranked Virginia as the top state in the country for business, but it ranked Virginia 24th for infrastructure, a category that includes not just transportation, highways, bridges and the electrical grid, but “the quality, availability and price of broadband service.”
Many rural school systems scrambled during the pandemic to help students and families get reliable internet access. Powhatan County’s was among the school districts that utilized school buses to help families park nearby and gain internet access.
Internet service has been a problem for years in the more rural parts of Hanover County. Earlier this year, Hanover spent $35,000 in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding to set up public Wi-Fi zones throughout the county for those who need internet service for work, school or simply browsing. The hot spots are at library branches, other county buildings and public parks.
Warner, speaking broadly about the issue in Abingdon, said Friday that “the idea that ... you could put your kid in the car and go drive to the school parking lot and create a hot spot there” might have worked temporarily amid the pandemic, but it’s not a long-term solution.
Virginia governors have sought for decades to diversify Virginia’s economy and help bring jobs to rural communities outside the urban crescent. Warner, who was governor from 2002 to 2006, said that while Friday’s announcement cannot guarantee that Virginia will land every job it pursues, “I can guarantee you this — if you don’t have high-speed internet broadband in 2021, you’re not even going to get a fair look from any company that wants to locate or bring jobs to you.”
The Northam administration said in a news release that since 2018, Virginia has awarded about $124 million in grants for broadband and connected more than 140,000 homes, businesses and “community anchors.”
The General Assembly and the governor invested $50 million each in 2020 and 2021 in the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative, a public-private partnership that provides targeted financial assistance to extend broadband service to areas that are not served by a provider.