By Jennifer Boysko and Roslyn Tyler
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed an inequity that is frighteningly prevalent in Virginia: the lack of broadband access. The commonwealth estimates there are roughly 500,000 Virginians who do not have access to internet infrastructure at their home or business. Worse, an estimated 200,000 students either don’t have access to the internet in their homes or their households can’t afford to take service. The fall semester and distance learning curriculum are all the more difficult for schools where some kids have internet and some don’t.
As chair and vice chair of the Broadband Advisory Council, we have heard firsthand how the pandemic has amplified Virginia’s digital divide and see the urgent need for bold action. Now more than ever, the commonwealth must invest in long overdue broadband infrastructure and ensure that every Virginian has access to high-speed internet.
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As disconnected Virginians can attest, the digital divide was a glaring problem well before the pandemic. However, since March, when everyday life transitioned online at warp speed, this divide has grown into a Grand Canyon. Telemedicine has become an industry standard for nonemergency medical visits. Workers by the thousands have switched from offices to working from home. Newly unemployed Virginians have relied on the internet to apply for unemployment benefits and search for jobs. Students from elementary school to college have been forced to reimagine their education in a distant learning format.
For those of us lucky enough to have a broadband connection and the means to afford the service, this new online lifestyle might just be an inconvenience. Yet for hundreds of thousands living through this pandemic without a broadband connection, the digital divide threatens every aspect of their lives, from employment opportunities to education quality. Most importantly, unconnected Virginians often are forced to complete tasks in person that otherwise could be done online, risking their health and that of their community by potentially exacerbating the spread of COVID-19.
In the face of this unprecedented crisis, unconnected communities have had to devise creative solutions to bring some connectivity to their residents and students. School divisions across the commonwealth, in partnership with the Department of Education, have procured and deployed thousands of mobile hotspots. These hotspots can provide basic connectivity to students needing to download their weekly curriculum or view online content. Other communities have expanded free internet access at community centers, and have upgraded school buses with Wi-Fi and parked them in unconnected neighborhoods. These short-term fixes will help some students during the fall semester but unfortunately, there is no substitute for a robust broadband infrastructure.
While there certainly is enough bad news to go around, there are reasons to be thankful. When it comes to bridging the digital divide, Virginia isn’t starting from scratch. Far from it, Gov. Ralph Northam set a goal of universal coverage by 2028 and a bipartisan majority of legislators have prioritized broadband expansion over the past few years by increasing funding many times over and passing policies to speed deployment.
Broadband grant programs like the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI), which had an annual budget of only $1 million as recently as 2017, have awarded more than $44 million in grants and connected 108,000 previously unserved Virginia homes and businesses. That’s more than 100,000 families that now can use the internet to safely stay connected to work, school, critical services and their loved ones. Virginia’s nationally recognized and well-established grant programs, with support from broadband providers and Virginia localities, mean we can effectively make awards, build projects and connect Virginians.
There also are other reasons to be hopeful. The governor’s budget priorities for the General Assembly’s current special session include $50 million in funding for the VATI program this year, along with $35 million for next year. That is a $15 million increase from the governor’s original budget and a recognition that the pandemic requires we act faster. The success of the VATI program and demand for these funds were on full display when grant applications came in on August 17. VATI received more than $105 million in requests from 45 applications, potentially connecting 66,000 homes, businesses and community anchors in 53 localities across every corner of the commonwealth.
With increased funding, we can connect more Virginians faster than ever. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we can’t expect the digital divide to solve itself and need to aggressively act. On behalf of the Broadband Advisory Council, we strongly encourage our colleagues in the General Assembly to support the governor’s broadband budget. The safer, faster, more convenient world of the future awaits us all — let’s make sure every Virginian has the ability to get there.
Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, represents the 33rd District in the Virginia Senate, which includes parts of Loudoun and Fairfax counties. She is chair of the Virginia Broadband Advisory Council. Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Roslyn Tyler, D-Sussex, represents the 75th District in the Virginia House of Delegates. She is vice chair of the Virginia Broadband Advisory Council. Contact her at: DelRTyler@house.virginia.gov