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Guest Opinion: Connecting Every Virginian to Digital Opportunity

In 2017, our Commonwealth set the ambitious goal of achieving universal access to broadband connectivity within the next decade. Fast forward six years, the COVID-19 pandemic has only further magnified the power of an internet connection to keep Virginians working, learning, and connected to their families and loved ones.

Fortunately, the success of programs like the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI) and the Line Extension Customer Assistance Program (LECAP) have helped our state make tremendous progress. Thanks to more than $2 billion in total broadband investments to support connectivity projects in the past five years, the number of unserved locations in Virginia has already more than halved.

Virginia is set to receive close to $1.5 billion through the upcoming Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) allocation, which represents another significant opportunity to transform our unserved communities. These communities include towns like Weirwood – a rural African American community – where the owner of the town’s sole business and community center – would like to offer an after-school computer learning facility for the children, but she lacks broadband access.

The 210,000 or so Virginians who still need connectivity, like those in Weirwood, overwhelmingly reside in our Commonwealth’s hardest-to-reach rural and sparsely populated regions where network expansion is complex and costly. Bringing connectivity to every single one of these communities is a daunting task, but we can bridge our digital divide once-and-for-all if we make the right decisions with upcoming federal funding infusions.

This requires our state, including local government officials and my colleagues in the General Assembly, to make smart investments and partner with experienced, proven providers. Common sense dictates that these funds should be allocated to grantees who already have a successful history of investing in our communities and building networks on time and on budget.

Public-private partnerships (like Virginia’s gold standard VATI program) throughout rural Virginia have proven particularly successful in bringing unserved community members broadband service. Take for example the collaborative efforts between cable internet service providers (ISPs) and school districts, town councils, and local governments to expand broadband. These providers continue to use their expertise in building, maintaining, and upgrading the next generation of networks to every corner of the Commonwealth.

In Bedford County, the Virginia Tobacco Commission partnered with Comcast to bring 8,000 homes online in 2021, revolutionizing the region and enabling its residents to interact with a new world of digital opportunity. Another cable ISP, Charter, partnered with the City of Suffolk and Isle of Wight and South Hampton Counties to bring high-speed broadband to more than 12,000 homes, along with 170 businesses and community anchors.

These are thousands of real Virginians whose lives have been transformed by the growth and economic opportunities that these high-speed networks have harnessed into their communities. Let’s make the most of our broadband investments so that we can get the job done and ensure every Virginian, regardless of zip code, is connected.

State Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-33rd, is vice chair to the Virginia Broadband Advisory Council. ###

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