(The Center Square) – Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam proposed the state use $700 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to achieve universal broadband by 2024.
The proposal, which would need to pass both chambers of the General Assembly, would speed up the deployment of the last-mile broadband infrastructure to accelerate the state’s current broadband plan by four years.
Under the new plan, the majority of the broadband connections would need to be completed within a year and a half. By 2024, every home and business in the commonwealth would have access to high-speed broadband internet.
Federal funding for the project would be directed from the American Rescue Plan.
“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. I am grateful to Senator [Mark] Warner for fighting to include this funding in the American Rescue Plan, which will be key to the success of local connectivity efforts and to ensuring every Virginian has affordable, reliable, and equitable access to high-speed internet.”
Northam’s proposal has received support from Democratic leaders in the Senate and House of Delegates. The Democratic Party holds a slim majority in both chambers.
“I have lived in a rural area my entire life and I know that the Commonwealth benefits as a whole when we lift up all communities,” Del. Roslyn Tyler, D-Jarratt, the vice chair of the Broadband Advisory Council, said in a statement. “This investment will have a tremendous impact on countless Virginians and allow our communities to prosper and grow.”
In a statement, Sen. Janet Howell, D-Reston, the chair of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, said she supports accelerating the plan.
“The Commonwealth continues to prioritize funding for universal broadband access and I’m encouraged to see these investments coming ahead of schedule,”Howell said. “This appropriation of federal dollars will go a long way towards supporting the investments that the Commonwealth has already made to bridge the digital divide.”
Since 2018, the government has provided about $124 million in broadband grants to connect more than 140,000 entities to broadband. The state also spent $100 million in 2020 and 2021 to create a public-private partnership to provide broadband services to locations that did not have a provider.
Broadband expansion has bipartisan support, but Republican leaders have not yet said whether they will support the governor’s acceleration plan.