Monday, December 11, 2023

Virginia Plan Projects Universal Broadband Access by 2028

A Southside Virginia farm. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)

RICHMOND — A five-year plan for how Virginia intends to spend almost $1.5 billion in federal broadband funds concludes the state could achieve “functionally universal broadband access” by 2028.

“In today’s increasingly digital world, having access to high-speed broadband is no longer a luxury, it is necessary in order to fully participate in daily life,” said Gov. Glenn Youngkin in a Friday release outlining the state’s plans.

Expanding broadband access has been a growing priority of lawmakers both in Virginia and nationally over the past decade. Virginia, whose history is intertwined with the internet’s rise, has been especially proactive. The state began developing a broadband availability map in 2010; in 2017, it launched the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative to spearhead expansion efforts. Former Gov. Ralph Northam pledged during his term to achieve universal broadband access by 2028, a date he later advanced to 2024.

Much of the more than $1.32 billion the state calculates has been invested in addressing the digital divide in Virginia has come from the federal government. Earlier this summer, the commonwealth netted $1.48 billion more through the federal Broadband Equity, Accessibility and Deployment, or BEAD, grant program.

The plans released Friday outline how the state intends to spend that money and the criteria it will use in awarding it to specific projects around Virginia.

Roughly 160,000 locations in Virginia currently lack reliable access to internet and don’t have a funded solution in place to provide that service. Of those, over 134,000 are considered unserved, meaning they lack access at the level of 25 megabits per second download speeds and 3 megabits per second upload speeds. The remainder are classified as underserved, with access above that level but below 100 Mbps download speeds and 20 Mbps upload speeds.

Virginia’s five-year plan for use of its BEAD funding projects that achieving “universal service” in the commonwealth will require over $958.7 million in investments.

Under the state’s plans, funding for new broadband infrastructure will be committed by the end of 2024.

“This means, every Virginia home, business, and community anchor institution that can be reached through a cost-effective solution will be included in a project for expansion of broadband infrastructure to their location,” the plan says.

Construction of those projects will then take up to four years, with completion expected by 2028.

In addition to addressing infrastructure shortfalls, Virginia’s broadband plans also sketch out goals for improving affordability of the service and increasing adoption among residents through digital skills training and other programs.

On the affordability front, Virginia is aiming to increase state use of the federal Affordable Connectivity Program, which subsidizes broadband costs for households that have an income at or below 200% of the federal poverty level or participate in programs like Medicaid.

As of July 2023, almost 385,000 households in the commonwealth had enrolled in the Affordable Connectivity Program, “meaning Virginians are receiving at least $11.5 million in subsidies monthly towards the cost of their broadband services, not factoring for possible $70 monthly benefits for Tribal beneficiaries,” the plan notes.

However, Virginia calculates that an additional 715,000 households are eligible for but not enrolled in the program, resulting in the state “missing out on over $21 million per month in federal subsidy funds.”

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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