Virginia Is Massively Expanding Broadband Access

By Alex Scribner

September 15, 2021

The Biden administration’s pandemic stimulus funding and direction from the Democratic General Assembly has increased funding for high-speed internet exponentially.

When Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam took office in 2018, Virginia was only spending about $4 million on expanding broadband internet access to hundreds of thousands of Virginians.

Thanks to the Biden administration’s coronavirus stimulus, the Democratic-led General Assembly and Northam are now spending a whopping $700 million from Virginia’s pandemic funding to get the state universal broadband access. 

“I turned to my team and asked what it would take to hit the goal of universal access more quickly. They came back to me with a plan, and said it will take about $700 million to get the job done. So together with you all, we have now committed to one of the most aggressive investments in broadband of any state in the country,” Northam said in an August speech

The plan puts Virginia on track to be the first state in the country to have universal broadband access. And it could happen by 2024, four years earlier than Northam originally proposed. 

More good news? As of September, there’s officially just under $220 million from the federal government’s “Capital Projects Fund,” a pool of money in the stimulus secured by Virginia Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.).

What Is Broadband (And Why Does It Matter?)

Broadband refers to internet speeds that are fast enough (25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload) to stream video and use many of the internet-connected devices we all have come to rely on in daily life.

Caitlyn Conner in Martinsville, Va., told Dogwood earlier this year that living without broadband was a major inconvenience, rendering home alarm systems and cameras, baby monitors, an iRobot vacuum, and gaming consoles mostly unusable. 

“I have three boys. They love Fortnite, and they have a lot of sleepovers at Nanny and Poppa’s house, because they have internet,” Conner said. “They have a Nintendo Switch that they can’t really play. I didn’t even realize you can’t download the new games without internet.”

That problem became more than inconvenience during the pandemic, when students needed strong internet connections to go to school from home. More than 200,000 K-12 students—14% of all Virginia students— lack broadband subscriptions in the home. That’s according to a 2020 report from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. In rural communities, nearly 20% of Virginia students lack broadband in the home. Compare that to less than 10% of students living in urban areas.

Virginia students in rural areas struggled with distance learning and fell behind their peers in better-connected regions. The pandemic laid bare the inequities of the country’s broadband infrastructure—a failing that disproportionately harms rural communities.

In addition to being necessary for remote education, research suggests access to broadband can increase property values and lower unemployment rates in rural areas. It can also improve health outcomes, as people in rural areas with fewer health care providers can access remote healthcare and education. 

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