By Evan Feinman and Courtney Dozier
Gov. Ralph Northam took office in 2018 with a clear vision: universal broadband access for all Virginians within a decade.
Broadband, or high-speed internet, has become a necessity, much like electricity or running water and, as of earlier this year, approximately 660,000 Virginians were being left behind.
Last summer, Northam appointed us to lead the push to connect all Virginians within 10 years and we are happy with the progress we’ve made by working together with local leaders and internet service providers. But make no mistake: There are still as many as 600,000 Virginians without access, more resources are needed and our work has just begun.
Broadband is necessary for our communities to grow. Rural Virginia communities that have seen old industries diminish and population dwindle absolutely require broadband if they’re going to be able to change their fortunes.
Even if Main Street is connected, if the surrounding community where employees will live isn’t, companies won’t locate there. Broadband brings prosperity.
Modern American civic and social life happens online. The internet helps to organize events, distribute popular culture, and connects us to those who share our profession, interests and our friends and family.
Telemedicine can help deliver care to our most remote citizens who regularly have to travel hours to receive treatment.
Broadband also has a profound impact on a child’s success. Even when income levels and demographics are the same, studies have shown that students without broadband perform markedly worse than students with broadband. It is unacceptable that any Virginia child be at a disadvantage because of geography.
Why isn’t broadband already statewide? Broadband deployment is, at its core, a math problem. You need enough paying customers to warrant the private sector spending the capital to build infrastructure to them.
Our solution is the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI) program, which provides grants to public-private partnerships between localities and internet service providers. In December of last year, the governor introduced a $50 million budget for VATI.
Leadership on both sides of the aisle came together to grow the program to $19 million, less than the proposed budget, but still a large increase over previous years. VATI applications are due Sept. 3 and local leaders and internet service providers are developing projects to get to unserved areas. The program is highly efficient, getting tens of thousands of Virginians connected at a far lower cost than similar efforts in other states or at the federal level.
We also worked with the General Assembly to tackle the digital divide legislatively. House Bill 2691, authored by Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington, allows Appalachian Power and Dominion Energy to partner with localities and internet service providers to leverage utility-owned fiber.
Now any internet service provider from anywhere in the world can partner with a utility and build networks in areas currently lacking access to high-speed broadband. Virginia is leading the way with this legislation that should significantly reduce the cost of deployment and, better yet, lower electric rates by reinvesting profits generated from leasing this new capacity.
From Clarke County to Bristol, or Scott County to Suffolk, access to broadband is a critical issue. The Commonwealth Connect Coalition came together this year behind one idea: fully funding broadband expansion efforts. Members of the coalition range from international companies like Amazon and Walmart, to state member organizations like the Virginia Education Association and Virginia Chamber of Commerce, to the broadband providers themselves.
This diverse coalition is impressive, a rarity in politics today and a testament to the need to do more to address the digital divide here in the commonwealth.
Our team is working tirelessly to beat the governor’s goal of universal coverage in a decade. Since the start of the Northam administration, 71,000 new broadband connections have been made to homes and businesses with the support of state-funded programs. This next grant round will connect thousands more, and our work has only just begun.
Northam has pledged to introduce a budget of $50 million per year during the next General Assembly session for the VATI program.
We hope all who are reading this will reach out to their delegate and senator and urge them to support fully funding the broadband effort. The Northam administration, along with the Commonwealth Connect Coalition, will be advocating to get as many Virginians connected as possible.
We are racing against the clock, racing against other states and racing toward the goal of equal opportunity. We’ve only finished the first lap, but we’re confident we are well on our way.