Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at an event titled “Transforming Rail in Virginia” at the Amtrak-VRE station in March 30, 2021 in Alexandria, Virginia.
Win McNamee | Getty Images
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, announced Friday that the commonwealth will invest $700 million of federal funds to provide universal broadband to its residents by 2024.
The plan is the most comprehensive and firm commitment of any state to reach such a goal on that timeframe, according to Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who spoke at a press conference announcing the initiative. The 2024 target is four years earlier than Northam’s earlier goal.
According to a press release, the state expects to have commitments on the majority of connections in the next 18 months.
Jennifer Boysko, a Democratic state senator who chairs the broadband advisory board, demonstrated the scale of the commitment by saying that in 2016, they were allocated just $1 million to spend on broadband throughout Virginia.
The funds come from the more than $4 billion Virginia was allocated through the American Rescue Plan passed by Congress, according to Northam. At the press conference, he emphasized how the Covid pandemic has demonstrated the urgent need for robust internet access across the state.
In late 2020 at the height of pandemic-induced distance learning, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia released a report finding that one in five Virginia students from kindergarten through college lacked either high-speed internet or a computer in the home. Of K-12 Virginia students, 14% lacked high-speed internet service and the same was true for 10% of college students.
Broadband coverage tends to be sparse in rural areas, though the state council report noted that nearly 40% of students without broadband in Virginia live in or around cities.
Northam drew a parallel between the current broadband situation and the early 1900s rise of electricity in the U.S. He said by 1936, 90% of rural Virginia didn’t have access to electricity until Congress passed a bill funding the infrastructure build-out.
Warner positioned the initiative as an opportunity for Virginia, recently ranked the top state for business by CNBC, to attract more jobs to the state.
“If you don’t have high-speed internet broadband in 2021 you’re not even going to get a fair look from any company that wants to locate or bring jobs here or frankly some of our own who want to stay here,” Warner said.
Other states have announced plans for expanded or universal broadband access on different timeframes. Connecticut’s governor, for example, has put out a plan to expand broadband coverage to all residents by 2027. A state broadband council in California issued a lengthy plan last year on how it would encourage accelerated broadband deployment in the state with the goal of universal, affordable coverage.