Dawn Rhudy of Elk Creek in Grayson County has to drive to a cemetery on a hill to – sometimes – get a signal. She says her family farm's business is suffering without broadband. Courtesy of Facebook.

RICHMOND — Virginia is eligible to receive a minimum of $100 million to help provide broadband coverage across the state under the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which cleared the House of Representatives on a 228-206 vote last week. The funds will be distributed to internet service providers through the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI), the commonwealth’s broadband grant program which extends internet service to currently unserved areas in the commonwealth.  

“The pandemic has further demonstrated that access to broadband is vital for economic growth, learning, and telemedicine,” U.S. Senator Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, said in an email Monday. The $1 trillion package, which is now headed to President Joe Biden’s desk, will “help connect Virginians to reliable high-speed broadband service, especially in areas in Southwest and Southside Virginia that lack reliable Internet access”.

Nearly 10% of Virginians live in areas that lack broadband infrastructure with minimally acceptable speeds, and 40% reside in localities serviced by just one internet provider with minimally acceptable speeds. Others simply can’t afford a broadband connection, even if available. That’s why the legislation would provide for $14.2 billion in subsidies paid directly to qualifying low-income households – more than 1.9 million will be eligible for the so-called Affordability Connectivity Benefit. In total, at least 473,000 Virginians currently do not have access to adequate broadband connectivity.

While officials in Virginia welcome the federal help, the commonwealth with more than $2 billion in public and private-sector funding is already on a fast track to universal broadband access, which will likely happen before the first grant dollars from the federal package will be dispersed. In July, Gov. Ralph Northam moved his previous 2028 deadline up to 2024 because the state had been able to tap into $700 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to back the effort. And last month, Northam said that the state would use $850 million in federal and state funds – matched by $1.5 billion in private and local government funds – to accommodate requests for $943 million in grants that would fund 57 projects statewide. 

“We’ve already made tremendous strides; under Governor Northam’s tenure the digital divide was cut more than half,” said Evan Feinman, the administration’s senior broadband advisor, in an interview Monday, adding that these payouts “should get the job done” by Northam’s deadline. However, additional resources would be “extremely valuable,” Feinman said. “It is possible that there will already be universal coverage in areas like Southwest Virginia before these funds are made available, but these resources will allow us to take the next steps for smart and equitable uses of the broadband network,” he said.

VATI will likely continue to play a key role by receiving Virginia’s allocation from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other relevant federal agencies and local stakeholders to distribute the funding to localities across the commonwealth. “We have the expectation that Governor Youngkin and Republicans will stay the course,” Feinman said. Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said in an email Wednesday that the governor-elect “campaigned on making government work for the people and supporting investments that will bring broadband access to rural and underserved communities, and he looks forward to making sure the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative is delivering this in the most efficient and effective way possible.” 

VATI currently requires funded projects to be public-private partnerships, with a local government partnering with a private sector internet service provider to bring service to that community.

One such example is the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority, an open-access, carrier grade internet network servicing the cities of Salem and Roanoke, Roanoke County and Botetourt County. The RVBA launched its new high-speed, carrier-grade fiber optic network in April 2016, allowing businesses, schools, libraries, hospitals and nonprofits to connect to stable, fiber internet and data transport services. It has since built more than 100 miles of fiber backbone.

Fiber for broadband internet through the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority being installed in downtown Roanoke. Photo courtesy of Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority.

“It’s good to see the federal government make a commitment to continue expanding broadband,” said Frank Smith, the RVBA’s president and CEO, about the news from Washington. “We have a 25% suburban-urban core, and the rest of our service area is rural,” Smith said, adding that expanding broadband access, speed and capacity while reducing costs and barriers would lure innovative new companies to invest in the region. More importantly, broadband is lifesaving infrastructure, Smith said. “We need it for healthcare delivery, not just rural, but in our entire service area,” he said. 

A recent study found that access to broadband throughout Virginia could empower growth in rural and small businesses which would add as much as $1.2 billion to gross state product and create more than 9,000 new jobs, which would generate around $452 million. Just small business growth then would generate as much as $20 to $26 million annually in new state income tax revenues.

Yet despite the RVBA’s efforts, more than 30% of households in Roanoke County are still considered unserved or under-served by the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) minimum standards, according to a 2019-2020 broadband availability study. 

A little to the north, in Botetourt County, an estimated 20% of homes lack high-speed broadband access. Nobody knows this better than County Administrator Gary Larrowe, who resides in such an underserved area. If you ask him about internet access at his home near Buchanan in the northeastern part of the county, he compares it to having to go outside to fetch water with a bucket, as opposed to enjoying high water pressure in the shower. “We’re living off a wifi hotspot, and my wife is working remotely,” Larrowe said. “When the kids come home from school, the signal goes to zero, because of their smartphones, and she has to stop. That’s very frustrating.” He also said that his family’s hotspot barely allows for streaming news programs on YouTube. “I don’t even have enough bandwidth to update my phone, I do that at the office,” he said. 

Less than five years ago, only 70 percent of residents had broadband access in Botetourt, a locality of 34,000 straddling the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains, leaving more than 10,000 without reliable internet connection. Since 2017, the county has secured over $2 million in VATI grant funds, almost $700,000 in CARES Act Fast Track Grant funds, and attracted several new broadband providers to the area. Last year, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Botetourt leveraged nearly half of allotted CARES Act funding – about $3 million – to advance broadband projects, helping an additional 2,000 local addresses to gain access to high-speed internet connections. “We are now at about 75 to 80% coverage, but still not at the speed needed,” Larrowe said. 

Fiber in the ground in the Roanoke Valley. Photo courtesy of the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority.

But that might be about to change. In September, the county partnered with Lumos Networks, a regional telecommunication company and the fifth provider serving the region, to apply for nearly $3.1 million in VATI funding for a $7.9 million project that would bring universal broadband coverage to the county by 2023. “Lumos would be the largest provider in our area that will bring a lot of fiber to businesses and homes across the county,” Larrowe said. 

Of the passage of the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Larrowe said: “This is absolutely huge. We wouldn’t have to fight for more infrastructure dollars. I just wish that we would have had it previously, it would have helped us a lot.” 

Catherine Fox, vice president of Destination Development at Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge, said that expanding broadband access is a crucial element in bringing more tourism to the area. “It’s a widely known fact that visitors make spontaneous decisions, and for our website, 73% access it through their mobile devices, which means we are reaching folks potentially after they get here looking for activities, places to eat, places to go, and read our ratings,” Fox said. 

While Roanoke City has good connectivity, that changes in the more rural areas in the county. “As you get further southwest, it becomes a concern, and having that universal coverage will really make a difference,” Fox said, adding that good broadband access would help turn visitors of the region into residents. “The communities we have worked with see broadband as a top priority for bringing in business,” she said. 

Another key factor in broadband access is quality of life. A recent study found that while applications for work, school, and healthcare are socially important, their total traffic volume is very small compared to streaming video entertainment provided by Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Prime, Disney+, Hulu, and Microsoft Xbox, which all require high-speed access provided by infrastructure upgrades. However, the video streaming entertainment providers do not contribute to middle or last mile network costs. 

Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, said in an email that he did not vote in favor of the new legislation because some of the funding could go to areas that don’t need it. “It does not prioritize rural areas that are truly unserved, like many parts of the 9th District, as urban areas with sufficient service to do homework online or watch Netflix could also be eligible for funding.” Griffith said that despite his no-vote his office would still assist with applications for funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, but he would also assist with grant applications for other federal broadband programs.

However, Rep. Bob Good, R-Campbell County, has a less favorable view of the new legislation. “It might be a big win for Democrats temporarily, politically. It might have been a win for President Biden to show that he ‘accomplished something.’ But it was a big loss for the country,” Good said in an interview with Lynchburg’s ABC13 News Tuesday. He also said that the bill is “terrible” and that only 10% in the legislation “is true infrastructure” – a claim that has been repeated by some Republicans but that has been rated false by Politifact and other fact checkers because it refers to an earlier version of the measure that included unrelated expenditures, such as $400 billion for expanding access to long-term, home and community-based care under Medicaid.

Markus Schmidt

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org.