As COVID-19 widens digital divide, Virginia could see record broadband investment

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- The coronavirus pandemic is raising the stakes of the digital divide for half a million Virginians without access to high-speed internet. 

Meanwhile, the General Assembly is staged to pass what some are calling record investments in broadband expansion. It comes as the state is facing significant revenue losses from COVID-19 restrictions that are straining the two-year budget and forcing lawmakers to abandon some spending priorities.

Virginia Rural Center Executive Director Kristie Proctor knew when her family chose to live in Eastern Hanover they would have to make some sacrifices. That has always been ok with her but, since March, things have gotten a lot harder.

“I’m proud to be from a rural area. This is a way of life my family and I really value,” Proctor said. “What we didn’t know is that we would be faced with a pandemic.” 

The pandemic has caused a logistical nightmare for the Proctor household, with three adults working full time and not enough internet to go around. She said hotspots have proved unreliable, especially during inclement weather. 

“It is nearly impossible to have all three of us working at the same time, even though we have more hotspots than people in the house,” Proctor said. “A hotspot, frankly, is just a band aid fix in the best scenarios.” 

When that band aid doesn’t work, Proctor said she has to drive 15 minutes to the nearest public, high speed internet connection: McDonalds. 

That’s why Proctor–anxious about the possibility of an all-virtual fall for local public schools–decided to enroll her kindergartener in private school, even though it’s thirty minutes away and could cost the family thousands. 

“Folks in rural areas who are unserved never had a choice. It was either face-to-face or have your child left behind,” Proctor said. 

The State Council of Higher Education estimates 200,000 K-12 students and 60,000 college students in Virginia lack access to broadband at home.

Evan Feinman, Gov. Ralph Northam’s Chief Broadband Advisor, estimates it will cost $300 million to connect every Virginian to high speed internet by 2028. 

“We believe we’re going to be one of the first large states to get to universal coverage,” Feinman said. “We anticipate beating Gov. Northam’s ten-year goal by a couple of years.” 

Investments currently being debated by state lawmakers in the special session could make a big dent in that effort. Northam’s proposed budget includes $85 million to expand broadband over two years. Feinman said the House and Senate appear to at least be in agreement on the first year’s $50 million commitment.  

On Friday, the Northam Administration also launched a new program to fast-track broadband projects. It contributes an additional $30 million in federal CARES Act funding, which has to be spent before the end of the calendar year. Localities are encouraged to reach out as soon as possible to get a share of the pot. 

“It will absolutely be a challenge to get these projects done. We anticipate burning the midnight oil,” Feinman said. “It would certainly be nice if the federal government wanted to loosen those requirements but we’ve seen no evidence that they’re planning to do that so far.” 

Feinman said making full use of federal funding is critical as state dollars are already stretched thin. He said the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative received 45 grant applications with requests totalling $105 million. 

Feinman said continued government investments in these projects are essential to incentivize the private sector to extend their infrastructure into rural areas with low population density.

“The fundamental math problem is that it costs basically the same amount to build a mile of broadband infrastructure in Arlington as it does in Alleghany but the amount of customers you can get from that investment in Arlington is a lot greater,” Feinman said.

“We have a moral and ethical obligation to solve this problem,” he furthered.

Since the pandemic could permanently shift Virginia’s reliance on virtual platforms at work and at school, Proctor said providing high speed internet across the commonwealth is the only way to ensure equal access to economic opportunity. 

“It’s more than an inconvenience at this point. This is an issue of equity,” Proctor said.

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