State pushes broadband expansion into overdrive
Early in his administration, Gov. Ralph Northam proposed an ambitious goal: achieving universal broadband connectivity statewide by 2028.
In May and July, Northam and General Assembly leaders announced plans to speed up that timeline; instead, they aim to deliver broadband to most of Virginia in 18 months using $700 million from the $4.3 billion the state expects to receive through the federal American Rescue Plan, relief funds approved by Congress in March geared to help localities recover from the pandemic.
“We were very excited to hear about that,” says Jonathan Belcher, executive director of the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority. “That’s obviously a very important issue to Southwest Virginia.”
About 11% of rural Virginians have no access to any internet service, according to the 2019 Virginia Commonwealth Connect broadband report.
When employees at the Blacksburg and Abingdon offices of the 1901 Group began working from home in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 crisis, some didn’t have access to broadband connections or had inadequate or intermittent bandwidth, says Sonu Singh, founder and CEO of the Reston-based IT services company owned by Reston-based Fortune 500 government contractor Leidos Holdings Inc. 1901 Group’s IT department had to set 10 employees up with mobile hot spots, which use a cellular network to connect to the internet.
“We had to kind of scramble to get them wireless access,” Singh says.
Last fall, the General Assembly allocated nearly $50 million to fund the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI), which funds broadband extension to unserved areas.
A sizable chunk of that money seems to be flowing to Southwest Virginia. In January, VATI awarded $1.23 million to the LENOWISCO Planning District Commission to extend 73 miles of fiber in Lee County and $16 million to the Cumberland Plateau Planning District Commission to construct 1,312 miles of fiber in Buchanan, Dickenson, Russell and Tazewell counties.
In March, VATI announced an award of $7.87 million to the Mount Rogers Planning District Commission to extend the broadband network in Smyth, Washington and Wythe counties and in the town of Damascus.
Expanding the availability of broadband is critical to economic development in Southwest Virginia, according to Belcher.
“Certainly, it’ll make it easier to recruit and also to expand industries that rely heavily on it,” Belcher says.
Singh agrees. “The reality is that if you don’t have broadband, it’s going to be hard to drive technology jobs.”