Rep. Spanberger says Virginia’s digital divide weakens local economy

By Davis Burroughs
April 25, 2019

“Whoops, something went wrong. Please check your internet connection.”

For some, that error message means having to wait until the next day to watch the latest Game of Thrones episode, which — to be fair — is a bummer. But for many children in rural Virginia, that pop-up is an all-too-familiar reminder that they’re moving through K-12 at dial-up speeds.

“Kids who grow up in areas where they do not have access to broadband internet are not getting the same experience or opportunities as kids who grow up in places where access is more regular,” said Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.).

Speaking at an event in Chesterfield on Thursday, Spanberger called this inequity “the homework gap.” Take-home school assignments are increasingly moving online, contributing to a nationwide digital divide between students with and without reliable internet. That divide is especially pronounced in rural Virginia.

Rep. Spanberger says Virginia’s digital divide weakens local economy

In Lee County, less than half of households have access to broadband internet, and that is true for roughly 4-in-10 households across the Commonwealth. Speaking to an audience of mostly women business leaders at a luncheon hosted by the Chesterfield Chamber of Commerce, Spanberger said the homework gap “could impact businesses here in Chesterfield.”

“When the business community is anticipating the skills, the knowledge and the experience in the future workforce, we need to make sure that there’s an equal opportunity of access,” she said.

In Congress, the former CIA operative has been a leading voice on the connectivity gap. On April 9, 2019, she led a bipartisan effort requesting funding to expand rural broadband internet connectivity. Seventy-one lawmakers from both parties signed her letter to the House Appropriations Committee. The following day, the House passed an amendment she introduced to improve the federal government’s research and reporting on broadband access.

Back at home, Spanberger is currently working to collect stories from constituents on how the lack of internet infrastructure is negatively impacting their lives.

In an interview, Spanberger said she’d collected over 100 responses so far. The majority “are discussing school-related issues, be it parents talking about their high school kids’ experiences,” she said, “or people who have gone back to school and are trying to take classes online.” Others, she said, reported challenges with working remotely or that they’d been excluded from remote job opportunities due to a lack of reliable internet in their region.

State-level lawmakers are also making this issue a priority. In 2018, when she was in the House of Delegates, Democrat Sen. Jennifer Byosko passed a bill to ensure a locality’s comprehensive plan includes strategies to provide broadband infrastructure that is sufficient to meet current and future needs. This year, Gov. Ralph Northam proposed spending $250 million over the next decade to reduce inequality in internet access.

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