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Kristie Helmick Proctor column: On broadband, don't leave rural Virginians behind
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Internet Connectivity

Kristie Helmick Proctor column: On broadband, don't leave rural Virginians behind

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Integral to 21st-century life is access to the internet. It’s difficult — and almost impossible — to imagine life without it. Yet countless Americans consider their lack of high-speed internet a major issue, and many rural Virginians, like myself, live with no or limited access to this resource.

There is immense work to be done, and at The Virginia Rural Center, we’ve been working to expand rural broadband access because closing the digital divide would be life-changing for many Virginians. Simple things that others take for granted aren’t a possibility for many people living in the commonwealth.

For example, rural Virginians never had a choice when it came to educating our children during the pandemic — “virtual school” simply was not an option. It was not easy for rural Virginians without reliable connections to video chat with a long-distance friend, or to keep up with current events by reading the news online. In addition to those simple pleasures, we miss out on career and education opportunities, telehealth resources and much more because we don’t have reliable, or in some cases any, connection to the outside world.

In order to thrive in the current day and age, rural Virginians need expanded broadband access, and we don’t stand a chance to compete without it.

These problems were only exacerbated by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Parts of everyday life that used to take place face to face have been altered by technology that allows virtual connections, such as remote work and education. The convenience of doing these things from the comfort of home, as was experienced during prolonged periods of quarantine, has made it unlikely that we ever will move away from these technology-dependent solutions.

Gov. Ralph Northam has previously set 2024 as a target date for universal broadband access, but we need it as soon as possible or we risk being left further behind our better-connected counterparts. Thankfully, things seem to be picking up speed. This year, Northam announced a $700 million investment to expand broadband access for rural Virginians, and we’re now expected to be one of the nationwide leaders in universal broadband access.

A key component of this success will be public-private partnerships, many of which are underway. In June, Northam also signed House Bill 2304, which permits electric utilities to work toward bringing broadband access to hard to reach areas like mine. It kicked off a number of partnerships that are working tirelessly to close the digital divide.

Recently, my home county of Hanover announced a partnership with All Points Broadband, Dominion Energy and Rappahannock Electric Cooperative to work toward this goal. These companies are working together to expand regional fiber-to-the-home broadband access, which includes providing the “middle-mile” fiber optic cable needed to connect more rural communities.

This initiative also was made possible through a pilot program established by the General Assembly in 2019, which allows partnerships between internet service providers, localities and electric utilities that seek to bring broadband into rural Virginia. This new way of thinking, along with the historic investment and thoughtful leadership, will help us close the digital divide in rural Virginia.

I greatly appreciate the Hanover County Board of Supervisors’ recent allocation of nearly $17 million in federal funding for broadband, and I remain hopeful this project could begin next year.

These days, it is hard for many Americans to imagine a life without easy access to their laptops or smartphones. But for those of us in rural areas, our reality is different. It certainly is time for a change, and as the pandemic has shown, the internet is even more important and integral than ever before. Don’t leave rural Virginians behind — we need connection and continued progress now.

Kristie Helmick Proctor serves as executive director of The Virginia Rural Center. Contact her at: varuralcenter@vt.edu

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