Virginia to spend $700M on universal broadband by 2024
Federal stimulus funding will help cut 10-year goal to three years
Ahead of the General Assembly’s August special session, Gov. Ralph Northam announced Friday he wants to spend $700 million of Virginia’s federal relief funding on expanding broadband access to all of Virginia. Virginia received $4.3 billion in federal funds through the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan passed in March.
Joined by U.S. Sen. Mark Warner at the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center in Abingdon, Northam fleshed out his plans, which would speed up his pledge in 2018 to have universal broadband access in the state by 2028 to completing the job by 2024. Most connections will be in place within the next 18 months, the governor added.
“If COVID has taught us anything, it has taught us the importance of universal broadband in our great commonwealth. Whether it be for virtual learning, or whether it be for telehealth or business opportunities, or just quality of life, it is very very important that we have universal broadband in Virginia,” Northam said.
Since 2018, the state has awarded about $124 million in broadband grants (mainly through the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative and Community Development Block Grants) and connected about 140,000 residences, businesses and other facilities. Virginia is currently the 15th most connected state in the country, but only 91.1% of Virginians have access to broadband internet with speeds of 100 mbps or faster, according to BroadbandNow, a trade site that publishes independent research on broadband and also provides data from the Federal Communications Commission.
Warner said that broadband was a necessity to attract good-paying jobs and businesses to Southwest Virginia.
“While we can’t guarantee that this historic announcement the governor’s making is going to guarantee we’ll get every job we’re going after,” he said, “I can guarantee this: If you don’t have high speed internet broadband in 2021, you’re not even going to get a fair look from any company that wants to locate or bring jobs, or frankly, some of our own who want to stay here and start great business.”
The expansion will create a trained workforce, Warner said.
“This will also create jobs,” he said. “Who’s going to lay that fiber? Who’s going to work in terms of installing. … All of those installed are opportunities. And the truth is, if we train those workers here in Virginia, and … once we get it installed in Virginia, they’ve got to go do some work in Johnson City [in Tennessee], that’s still good for the regional economy.”
The Democratic-controlled General Assembly and Northam have agreed to provide $50 million in 2020 and an additional $50 million in 2021 to the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative, a public-private partnership to extend broadband service to areas currently without internet providers.
“Localities and broadband providers have stepped up over the past three years and helped the commonwealth connect thousands of unserved Virginians,” Secretary of Commerce and Trade Brian Ball said in a statement. “With today’s announcement, large regional projects that achieve universal service can be funded across the commonwealth without delay.”
In June, Northam announced that the Virginia General Assembly would convene in Richmond on Aug. 2 for a special session to allocate the federal funding. On Monday, Northam proposed spending $353 million on small business recovery and assisting the tourism industry.