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Northam announces $700 million plan to achieve universal broadband accessibility across Virginia

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D), shown at a news conference in March, has proposed spending a $700 million chunk of federal coronavirus relief aid to achieve universal broadband accessibility across the state. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced a $700 million plan to achieve universal broadband accessibility across Virginia by 2024, a historic investment in broadband for a state long beset by a digital divide.

Northam (D) and Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) met in Abingdon with legislative leaders Friday afternoon to unveil their proposal for spending a portion of the state’s $4.3 billion in federal coronavirus relief funding under the American Rescue Plan.

The General Assembly will meet in a special session on Aug. 2 to decide how to spend the funds, as well as discuss the $353 million plan announced by Northam earlier this week to aid businesses that have been hit hard by the pandemic.

“It’s time to close the digital divide in our Commonwealth and treat Internet service like the 21st century necessity that it is — not just a luxury for some, but an essential utility for all,” Northam said in a news release. “The pandemic has reinforced how important high-quality broadband is for the health, education, and economic opportunity, and we cannot afford to leave any community behind.”

Throughout the pandemic, Virginians in rural areas of the state struggled to access the Internet, forcing some residents to telework from a parking lot or students in virtual classes to complete assignments huddled around a mobile hotspot. State laws preventing school districts from providing Internet access to students further exacerbated the digital divide across the state.

According to Northam, the commonwealth has 233,500 homes, businesses and other locations without access to broadband.

The $700 million investment would accelerate the state’s goal of deploying broadband infrastructure by 2028 to these underserved areas, pushing the timeline forward to 2024. Most of the connections would be established within the next 18 months, according to the news release.

Virginia says it is on track to be one of the first states in the nation to achieve universal broadband service.

In the past three years, the state has connected over 140,000 locations and made $100 million in investments to a public-private partnership with the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative, aiming to provide financial assistance to extend broadband service to areas unserved by a provider.

Additionally, through a pilot program established in 2019 by Northam and the General Assembly, more than 13,000 homes and businesses were connected to high-speed Internet. Northam has since signed legislation to make the program permanent.

“We live in a very diverse commonwealth geographically. The challenges that we have on the Eastern Shore ... are much different than when you are in the mountains,” Northam said at the news conference. “We still need more resources to get that final mile.”

Warner, who helped secure billions in funding to increase broadband affordability as part of the American Rescue Plan, emphasized the necessity of Internet access during the pandemic.

“If we get this plan of the governor’s implemented, we will be the first state in the country with this extensive of an approach,” Warner said, emphasizing the potential for job growth. “This is the kind of future we’ve all imagined for a long time.”

Warner also aided in securing $65 billion in funding in the next five years to expand broadband nationwide as part of the sweeping infrastructure deal announced in June.

Del. Roslyn C. Tyler (D-Sussex), vice chair of the broadband advisory council in the state’s department of housing and community development, emphasized in the news release her own experience living in rural Virginia.

“I know that the Commonwealth benefits as a whole when we lift up all communities,” Tyler said. “This investment will have a tremendous impact on countless Virginians and allow our communities to prosper and grow.”

State Sen. Jennifer B. Boysko (D-Fairfax) said she was amazed at the scale of the proposal — just five years ago, the state had only $1 million to spend on the issue.

“We know that not only do we need the broadband on the ground, but we also need to make it affordable for the people,” Boysko said. “We are committed to continuing to do that.”