This is what is commonly called the “digital divide” — the gap between those consumers who have broadband and those who don’t. The coronavirus pandemic has underscored the importance of bridging that divide, because we all know that high-speed Internet access isn’t a luxury. To benefit from telework, telehealth, remote learning, precision agriculture and more, it’s a necessity.
Fortunately, it seems like every week there is exciting news about that need being met in Virginia. In July, a four-county project to bring universal broadband to the Northern Neck broke ground, heralding fiber deployment to 7,200 households and businesses. In August, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) celebrated Surry County’s broadband project, which will connect 4,880 unserved locations to high-speed Internet and achieve universal broadband throughout the county by October. And then n historic step: Northam and other elected officials announced that Virginia will devote $700 million to broadband deployment, accelerating Virginia’s goal of universal broadband from 2028 to 2024.
Experts have concluded that Virginia is a national leader on bridging the digital divide. How has Virginia done it?
One part of the answer is that Virginia has addressed the unfortunate fact that it’s expensive to deploy and operate telecommunication infrastructure in rural areas. The cost of running a mile of fiber optic broadband — including labor, equipment, permits, pole attachment fees — in Halifax County or Hampton Roads is fairly similar. But there are more residents and, hence, more potential customers in dense communities such as Hampton compared with rural communities such as Halifax. Without a way to make the economics work, private companies have not expanded broadband to rural areas on their own. Virginia and several local governments have leveraged hundreds of millions in public funds to help build last-mile connections (that is, connections between a residence and nearby infrastructure). The state’s flagship program is the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative, which supports broadband deployment in hard-to-serve parts of the state. More on that in a minute.
Another critical step Virginia has taken involves empowering electric utilities to be part of the solution. Specifically, in 2019, Virginia enacted legislation championed by Del. Israel D. O’Quinn (R-Washington). This law gave electric utilities the flexibility to build middle-mile fiber (that is, the high-capacity lines that connect communities to the core of the network). And it established a three-year pilot project in which Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power could lease excess fiber capacity to broadband providers aiming to reach unserved communities.
More than 13,000 unserved locations will be connected from projects involved in the pilot. In particular, Dominion is actively involved in the projects mentioned earlier — Surry and the four counties of the Northern Neck. And Grayson County, a rural and mountainous county in Southwest Virginia, will achieve universal broadband in part by leveraging Appalachian Power’s fiber network. Noting the pilot’s success, the governor and General Assembly leaders such as state Sen. Jennifer B. Boysko (D-Fairfax) and Del. Roslyn C. Tyler (D-Sussex) took action: They made the program permanent with an overwhelming and bipartisan vote in the 2021 session.
The best is yet to come. On Sept. 15, the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative started evaluating grant applications for the upcoming fiscal year. Preliminary estimates suggest that applicants will aim to connect hundreds of thousands of unserved locations using VATI’s substantially increased budget and by working cooperatively with electric utilities.
Having led the Federal Communications Commission, I’ve been able to take a bird’s-eye view of the country and assess the effectiveness of various state programs. I can say without reservation that Virginia is leading the pack in establishing a framework for what I like to call “digital opportunity” for all its citizens. Its success in broadband can be attributed to several factors: the governor’s consistent prioritization of broadband, bipartisan support and funding from the General Assembly, an efficient and successful VATI program and enabling electric utilities to deploy middle-mile infrastructure. This framework will deliver universal broadband throughout the commonwealth. And it is a model for many other states in our nation, large and small, and from coast to coast.
I often think about the young man I met in South Boston and the many others like him across Virginia. Thanks to the work being done by many public servants and private companies in the state, I’m confident the day will soon come when every Virginian who wants reliable Internet access will be able to get it — without having to check the forecast.