Broadband fiber. Courtesy of the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority.

With only weeks left in his four-year term, outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam on Monday announced a total of $705 million in specific grants for broadband expansion in Southwest Virginia in an effort to get every household online by 2024. Northam also proposed a total of $11.4 million in funding over two years to expand programs at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, particularly in the area of economic development. 

UVa Wise would get $6.5 million in fiscal year 2023 and $4.9 million in 2024, partially offset by savings from the elimination of the two coal tax credits passed by the General Assembly in February, which could be $300,000 each year in fiscal years 2023, 2024 and 2025, and then increasing to $6.5 million a year beginning fiscal year 2026. Northam had proposed to amend the initial House and Senate bills accordingly, but the legislature rejected his suggestion. 

The tax credits had been designed to subsidize production and employment at mining companies in the Southwest, but critics argued that the incentives had outlived their purpose and no longer protected mining jobs. Northam eventually signed the repeal without his proposed changes. 

Broadband expansion, particularly in the mountainous regions of the Southwest, had been high on Northam’s list since assuming office in 2018. At the time, 660,000 Virginia homes and businesses remained without internet, but Virginia has since closed the digital divide by 90%. “Broadband is certainly something that has always been a top priority of mine,” Northam said in an interview with Cardinal News last week. “When I came into office, Virginia was investing around $4 million a year. This year, the total public-private investment is around $2 billion, and by the year 2024 all Virginians will have access to broadband. That is really, really important to rural Virginia,” he said.

In July, Northam had moved his previous 2028 deadline up by four years because the state had been able to tap into $700 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to back the effort. In October, 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 through the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI), administered by the Department of Housing and Community Development. Since 2018, the administration has awarded $846 million in broadband grants and connected over 429,000 homes and businesses.

“Virginia and the VATI program continue to be the national model for closing the digital divide and today’s announcement cements our success,” said Secretary of Commerce and Trade Brian Ball in a news release. “This round of grants will connect more than 278,550 households/businesses to high-speed internet, ensuring more communities across the commonwealth have access to the necessities of modern life.”

State Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, on Monday said that he was proud to support multiple grant applications from Southwest Virginia totaling over $100 million.  “Securing these dollars for our region is an absolute game-changer that will improve how we live and work, making SWVA an even better place for our families and more competitive in an ever-connected world,” Pillion said in an email.

In the Southwest, state grants will be matched by local governments and internet providers. The projects include:

Bath-Highland Network Authority and MGW

$7,876,800 Award

$3,113,200 Leveraged 

The project will build fiber broadband to 2,470 unserved locations and achieve universal coverage in Bath and Highland Counties.

Bedford County and ZiTEL

$8,523,908 Award

$10,208,347 Leveraged

The project will build fiber broadband to 4,114 unserved locations and achieve universal coverage in Bedford County when combined with other projects. 

Bedford County and Shentel

$8,642,313 Award

$17,546,515 Leveraged

The project will bring broadband to 5,565 unserved locations and achieve universal coverage in Bedford County when combined with other projects. 

Botetourt County and Lumos

$3,084,796 Award

$4,824,937 Leveraged 

The project will build fiber broadband to 1,901 unserved locations and achieve universal coverage in Botetourt County. 

Commonwealth Regional Council and Kinex 

$15,000,000 Award

$12,450,992 Leveraged 

The project will build fiber broadband to 11,397 unserved locations and achieve universal coverage in Cumberland, Lunenburg, and Prince Edward Counties when combined with other projects. 

Dinwiddie County and RURALBAND

$7,532,055 Award

$13,116,640 Leveraged 

The project will build fiber broadband to 1,622 unserved locations and achieve universal coverage in Dinwiddie County. The project was supported by the Cameron Foundation through the Commonwealth Connect Fund. 

Franklin County and Shentel

$9,832,456 Award

$14,722,315 Leveraged

The project will build fiber and wireless broadband to 3,508 unserved locations and achieve universal coverage in Franklin County when combined with other projects. 

Campbell County and Shentel

$5,443,000 Award

$10,107,617 Leveraged

The project will build fiber and wireless broadband to 3,509 unserved locations and achieve universal coverage in Campbell County when combined with other projects.

Mount Rogers Planning District Commission and Point Broadband

$65,883,228 Award

$33,052,600 Leveraged

The project will build fiber broadband to 27,450 unserved locations and achieve universal coverage in Smyth, Washington, and Wythe Counties. 

West Piedmont Planning District Commission and RiverStreet Networks

$33,571,073 Award

$61,794,113 Leveraged

The project will build fiber broadband to 10,056 unserved locations and achieve universal coverage in Franklin, Henry, and Patrick Counties when combined with other projects. 

Cumberland Plateau Planning District Commission and Point Broadband

$23,478,429 Award

$6,459,000 Leveraged

The project will build fiber broadband to 5,828 unserved locations and achieve universal coverage in Buchanan, Dickenson, Russell, and Tazewell Counties. 

LENOWISCO Planning District Commission and Scott County Telephone Cooperative

$22,190,500 Award

$6,354,500 Leveraged

The project will build fiber broadband to 10,982 unserved locations and achieve universal coverage in Lee, Wise, and Scott Counties. 

New River Valley Regional Commission and Gigabeam and All Points Broadband

$68,355,355 Award

$67,370,008 Leveraged 

The project will build fiber broadband to 19,966 unserved locations and achieve universal coverage in Bland, Montgomery, and Pulaski Counties. 

Roanoke County and Craig Botetourt Electric Cooperative 

$1,581,584 Award

$1,646,138 Leveraged

The project will build fiber broadband to 495 unserved locations and achieve universal coverage in Roanoke County when combined with other projects. 

Roanoke County and Cox Communications  

$1,535,264 Award

$1,597,927 Leveraged

The project will build fiber broadband to 396 unserved locations and achieve universal coverage in Roanoke County when combined with other projects. 

Roanoke County and Shentel

$490,000 Award

$510,000 Leveraged

The project will build fiber broadband to 213 unserved locations and achieve universal coverage in Roanoke County when combined with other projects. 

Roanoke County and B2X Online

$170,609 Award

$177,572 Leveraged

The project will build a wireless broadband network to connect 290 locations and achieve universal coverage in Roanoke County when combined with other projects. 

Southside Planning District Commission and EMPOWER Broadband

$69,431,635 Award

$84,677,555 Leveraged 

The project will build fiber broadband to 11,527 unserved locations and achieve universal coverage in Brunswick, Charlotte, Halifax, and Mecklenburg Counties when combined with other projects. 

Floyd County and Citizens Telephone Cooperative

$1,310,267 Award

$1,111,725 Leveraged

The project will build fiber broadband to 723 unserved locations and achieve universal coverage in Floyd County.

This story has been updated to include additional projects.

Markus Schmidt

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