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Northam proposes $700 million to boost broadband, seeks to close state's digital divide
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Northam proposes $700 million to boost broadband, seeks to close state's digital divide

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Gov. Ralph Northam announced on Friday that he wants to use $700 million of Virginia’s federal funding under the American Rescue Plan in order to achieve universal broadband coverage in Virginia by 2024.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which required millions of Virginians to work and study at home, underscored the importance of reliable internet connections. Northam’s administration said the federal funding, in addition to continuing state investments, will be instrumental in closing the state’s digital divide, in which many rural communities lag the prosperous urban crescent that stretches from Northern Virginia through greater Richmond to Hampton Roads.

“It’s time to close the digital divide in our commonwealth and treat internet service like the 21st century necessity that it is — not just a luxury for some, but an essential utility for all,” Northam said in a statement.

“The pandemic has reinforced how important high-quality broadband is for the health, education, and economic opportunity, and we cannot afford to leave any community behind. With this historic $700 million investment, universal broadband is now within our reach.”

Northam said his proposal would move up his 10-year goal for achieving universal internet access in Virginia from 2028 to 2024.

BroadbandNow reported in June that Virginia, with a population of 8.6 million, is 15th among the states in broadband internet access. It said that while 91% of residents have access to wired broadband internet speeds of at least 25 megabits per second, about 697,000 Virginians don’t have access to wired connections at such speed. It added that 608,000 Virginians have access to only one internet service provider and 306,000 Virginians don’t have any access to wired internet options.

Northam is to make the formal announcement at 1 p.m. at the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center in Abingdon. He is to be joined by U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, who worked to include broadband funding in the federal rescue plan and by key state finance leaders — Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, chair of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, and Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, head of the House Appropriations Committee.

The General Assembly returns to Richmond Aug. 2 for a special session to determine how to spend the state’s more than $4.3 billion in American Rescue Plan funding.

Broadband funding will now become a key focus of the special session, during which Northam also is expected to propose hundreds of millions of dollars to shore up the state’s mental health system, which has temporarily halted admissions at five state hospitals for lack of staffing.

CNBC last week ranked Virginia as the top rated state in the country for business, but it ranked Virginia 26th for infrastructure, a category that includes not just transportation, highways, bridges and the electrical grid, but “the quality, availability and price of broadband service.”

Many rural school systems scrambled during the pandemic to help students and families get reliable internet access. Powhatan was among the school districts that utilized school buses to help families park nearby and gain internet access.

The Northam administration said in a news release that since 2018 Virginia has awarded about $124 million in grants for broadband and connected more than 140,000 homes, businesses and “community anchors.”

The General Assembly and the governor invested $50 million each in 2020 and 2021 in the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative, a public-private partnership that provides targeted financial assistance to extend broadband service to areas currently unserved by a provider.

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