RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH, MICHAEL MARTZ
Virginia will submit a plan late this year to ensure that every home and business in the state can connect to broadband networks for high-speed internet service, using a $1.5 billion federal grant that President Joe Biden announced for the state on Monday.
“We won’t accept anything less,” said Evan Feinman, director of the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment program at the National Telecommunications Information Administration.
Feinman, who was chief broadband adviser to then-Gov. Ralph Northam, likened the $42 billion national program to rural electrification of the country more than 85 years ago during the Depression.
“This is the largest investment in broadband infrastructure in the nation’s history and the largest telecommunications grant the commonwealth (of Virginia) has ever gotten,” he said in an interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Monday. “It’s going to ensure that every American has access to the same standard of living as the folks who already have access to high-speed internet.”
That would mean people who live in communities where high-speed internet is unavailable will not have to travel to libraries, schools and other buildings with Wi-Fi internet networks to perform school work or do their jobs, as many did during the COVID-19 pandemic over the past three-plus years.
“Access to broadband is essential for participating in our increasingly digital world,” Gov. Glenn Youngkin said in a statement on Monday. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw how children who didn’t live in areas with broadband connectivity suffered more than their counterparts. These programs will ensure that Virginia is moving forward and that no matter where you live in the Commonwealth, Virginians will have the resources they need to thrive in the modern digital economy.”
Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris announced the grants on Monday under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which the president signed into law in late 2021.
Virginia is one of 10 states to receive more than $1 billion each from the Broadband Equity Access and Development program under the infrastructure law.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., a former telecommunications executive and governor who played a lead role in shaping the infrastructure act, said the state won big “because Virginia did the hard work over the last four years to both deploy and accurately map where we have gaps in coverage.”
“This has been a passion of mine since I’ve been governor — how do we make sure that kids in rural areas have the same opportunities as kids in places like Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads?” Warner said in a video statement announcing the award.
Hotspots and patchy service
Expanded broadband service would make life easier for thousands of Virginians, such as Sonya Price and Terry Mills, residents of Varina in eastern Henrico County.
Price, who works at Fort-Gregg Adams and moved to Henrico in 2017 from Prince George County, built her home in a new cluster of houses off of New Market Road in Varina.
She previously had access to broadband.
“I didn’t even think to ask about whether or not there was internet,” Price said.
She now uses hotspots, which she says provide patchy service. She often runs into data limits, which require an extra monthly payment to exceed that limit. Her grandson cannot play his video games on the slow internet that hotspots provide.
Her house in Varina is within a 25-minute drive of downtown Richmond. The homes in the neighborhood are mostly built within the past 15 years, and are listed on Zillow as valued at upward of $400,000.
The neighborhood is within a couple of miles of houses with broadband access. Price said she and her neighbors were told it would cost tens of thousands of dollars each to extend the broadband service to their area.
Two staff members with Fredericksburg City Schools delivered a solar-powered internet hot spot to the Central Park Town Homes in August 2020. Virtual schooling during COVID-19 was a factor driving urgent need for reliable broadband internet access across the commonwealth.
She said the patchy internet service also hurt her ability to get a job working remotely in today’s workforce, which relies on access to the internet.
“I want to do a part-time job from home, but a lot of those companies require broadband,” she said. “You can’t use a hotspot.”
She also worries about her safety, noting that the lack of broadband access limits the types of security features that can be installed.
If she had known about the inability to access broadband, she said, it would have deterred her from building her house there.
Mills, a lifelong Varina resident, said he has lived for about seven years in a neighborhood that lacks broadband. He and his wife use hotspots, as did his daughter when she attended Varina High School.
He said the family uses DirectTV since it is all that is available, and it runs about $200 a month.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., hailed the grant announcement while in Winchester on Monday to examine the role of telehealth services in connecting health care providers with patients who cannot travel for care. “High-quality, reliable broadband also plays a crucial role in helping Virginians access work and educational opportunities and stay in touch with loved ones,” Kaine said.
Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, who allied with Warner to push hard for the infrastructure package in the House of Representatives, called the grant announcement “a landmark moment in our work to close the digital divide across Virginia — and the economic benefits of this investment will benefit every Virginian.”
Virginia’s congressional delegation divided over the infrastructure act, with the seven Democrats then in the House delegation supporting it and four Republicans voting against it. Rep. Jen Kiggans, R-2nd, was not a member of Congress then, but defeated Rep. Elaine Luria, D-2nd, last year and took office in January.
State will distribute funds
The grant will go directly to the state, which will distribute the money to local governments, Indian tribes and internet providers to carry out a state plan that the federal government must review and approve beforehand.
The Department of Housing and Community Development, which oversees broadband deployment in Virginia, is expected to verify the map and submit a plan by the end of the year. “It could be sooner,” Feinman said. “It depends on how quickly they want to proceed.”
Department spokesperson Amanda Love said Monday that the agency “will administer the BEAD funds,” short for Broadband Equity Access and Deployment, “to deploy high-speed broadband infrastructure to the remaining unserved homes, businesses and community anchor institutions across Virginia.”
Love said the agency would use the money to promote affordable internet service and build on the work of the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative.
First, the state and its partners must verify the accuracy of the current Federal Communications Commission maps of estimated broadband coverage. In January, Warner mounted a vigorous effort to ensure that Virginia residents review the FCC maps to verify which homes and businesses have internet service and which do not.
“We need everybody to be engaged to ensure the maps are right,” Feinman said.
Gaps in coverage
Some areas that already have service may have gaps in coverage. For example, Chickahominy Indian Chief Stephen Adkins said Monday that most of the tribe has affordable internet service in Charles City County, its base, but noted that his daughter does not have access at her home near the Chickahominy River and his son does not have service in his part of New Kent County.
The tribe received a $500,000 grant last month from the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program for engineering and feasibility studies to expand access to high-speed internet by tribal members. Adkins said the tribe is working with county government and internet providers, but urged the state to consult closely with federally recognized tribes and those that are currently recognized only by Virginia.
New Kent is splitting the cost of a $33.9 million project to hook up more than 3,000 homes to high-speed networks, beginning with Barhamsville in late August and Talleysville in October. The county put up $16.1 million, including $4.4 million it had received from the Biden administration through the American Rescue Plan Act, while the cable company invested $17.8 million.
“Our Board of Supervisors just made a decision we weren’t going to wait” for state grants, New Kent County Administrator Rodney Hathaway said Monday.
In the second phase of the project, Cox will upgrade its coaxial cable networks for existing customers with fiber-optic cables that can support high-speed internet service.
“By the end of 2026, every single household in the county will have fiber-optic service,” Hathaway said.
Internet providers, represented by VCTA-Broadband Association of Virginia, said they have spent $3.2 billion to provide Virginia customers high-speed internet service.
“We look forward to working with our state leaders to ensure these broadband funds are used to their fullest potential to connect every corner of the Commonwealth,” the association said Monday.