Opinion: Commentary: Closing the Digital Divide

Opinion: Commentary: Closing the Digital Divide

Federal funds make this possible by 2024

Last Friday, Governor Northam announced good news for Virginia: $700 million in American Rescue Plan Funding will be invested to achieve universal broadband in the Commonwealth by 2024! This brings us full broadband access four years ahead of the schedule set by Northam’s previous goal: universal broadband by 2028. With this announcement, Virginia is now poised to become one of the first states in the nation to achieve universal broadband service.

What is broadband and why is it so critical?

Broadband is defined as high-speed internet access. It is different from dial-up internet in that it provides a higher speed of data transmission, allowing for higher quality transmissions like video conferencing. Broadband also does not block phone lines, and there is no need to reconnect each time you need to use the internet. Broadband provides high-speed internet access through multiple types of technologies including fiber optics, wireless, cable, DSL (Digital Subscriber Line), and satellite.

In Virginia, there are an estimated 233,500 unconnected homes and businesses. In our modern world, having access to the internet is as much a necessity as utilities like electricity, water, and sewage; and, without it rural communities are being left behind. Frankly, it is as stark as this -- that the absence of broadband in a community means the absence of jobs.

Access to broadband allows communities to flourish. Communities are better able to retain and attract jobs. Students have better educational opportunities. Residents gain better access to healthcare with telemedicine options. Overall, opportunity can be equally distributed regardless of where someone lives. We cannot continue to allow rural communities to be left behind. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, it became even more clear how disadvantaged rural communities were compared to those with adequate broadband access.

Not just looking at this situation through an equity lens, the economic gains of universal broadband would be significant. A 2019 study done by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Amazon showed that universal broadband access would increase Virginia’s annual sales by $2.24 billion and add over 9,000 jobs. A 2019 USDA study revealed that universal broadband would increase total agriculture production by 18%, or $16.3 billion in Virginia’s agriculture and forestry output. Agriculture is our number one industry in Virginia with an economic impact of over $91 billion dollars and 334,000 jobs!

Thankfully, because the Governor has diligently worked with us in the General Assembly and service providers over the last several years to prioritize this issue through the very successful Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI), it will not take long to get Virginia over the finish line with this dramatic injection of federal funds. In 2019, the Governor and the General Assembly established a pilot program that promotes collaboration between localities, electric utilities, and internet service providers to connect unserved areas to high-speed internet. In just two years of this pilot program, Virginia’s utility companies have helped connect more than 13,000 homes and businesses across the Commonwealth. Earlier this year, Governor Northam signed bipartisan legislation that makes the pilot program permanent. Since 2018, when the VATI program got going, we have seen the digital divide cut in half with 140,000 Virginia homes and businesses connected across 44 localities.

In the upcoming special session beginning on Aug. 2, as we decide how to spend the $4.3 billion in federal funds available to the Commonwealth, I look forward to doing my part as an Appropriator, and member of the Broadband Advisory Council, to ensure that the General Assembly approves and fully funds the Governor’s proposal for universal broadband in order to close the digital divide. Our fellow Virginians should not wait any longer to get online.