ABINGDON — Southwest Virginia will be among rural Virginia areas that could see a total of $700 million to push ‘last-mile’ extension of high-speed broadband internet access by 2024.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and Virginia U.S. Senator Mark Warner came to the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center on Friday to announce that General Assembly House and Senate money committee members have agreed on the amount — part of $4.3 billion in federal American Rescue Plan funds allocated to the state.
“Broadband in 2021 is what electrification was in this country in the early 1900s,” Northam said, comparing the state’s broadband expansion efforts since 2017 to Congress’ 1936 effort to give rural areas affordable access to electric power.
Virginia funded about $4 million for rural broadband service expansion in 2018, Northam said, with annual funding through the Virginia Telecommun- ications Initiative growing to $19 million and $34 million in the two following years. For 2021 and 2022, $50 million for each year had been OK’d before the latest $700 million.
Northam said the General Assembly will meet in special session to approve spending plans for the ARP $4.3 billion, with approval expected for the $700 million.
“We are well poised to have broadband to all corners of the commonwealth by 2024,” Northam said.
“This is a final step in a legacy some of us in this room tried to take 20 years ago,” said Warner of the state Tobacco Commission’s efforts to fund fiber optic networks in Southwest Virginia.
“If you don’t have high-speed broadband in 2021, you’re not even going to get a fair look,” Warner said of the region’s economic development and job creation efforts.
Northam and Warner each said that Virginia’s work in rural broadband service expansion in the past four years puts the state ahead of the rest of the country in having a comprehensive broadband plan. Warner added that continuing Congressional infrastructure negotiations could add more broadband funding.
State Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Herndon and a member of the state Broad- band Advisory Committee, said rural broadband expansion with the $700 million can provide more affordable internet service for schools and businesses along with competition to make it more affordable to the public.
State Delegate Israel O’Quinn, R-Bristol, and state Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Abingdon, said the ARP funding comes at a time when Southwest Virginia already has an extensive mid-level fiber line network along major roadways and in several municipalities.
O’Quinn said legislation passed in the 2021 General Assembly session will make it easier to get ‘last-mile’ connections to households away from trunk line and municipal areas. Development of detailed broadband service maps — also authorized under the legislation — will give more accurate information on how many residents are served and with what signal strength by providers in specific areas, he said.
“It broke that mold of saying that you’re in a provider’s territory and only that provider can provide service,” O’Quinn said. “Now it’s kind of broke open to where whoever’s willing to do it can do it.”
Wise County Administrator Mike Hatfield said Friday’s announcement followed opening discussions of a county broadband study to get better details on service coverage.
“If you look at a map, Wise County is about 80 percent covered,” Hatfield said. “If you go to the peo- ple, it’s about 50 percent covered. If we get money like this, we’re going to be able to immediately go use it where it’s needed.”
“I can assure you that, with this much money coming in from the commonwealth, when a constituent calls my office, the provider will hear from me immediately,” Pillion said. “My constituent will get hooked up, no more excuses. Now’s the time, 2024, let’s get them hooked up.”