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CARES Act money used to improve broadband access in Virginia

December 22, 2020 GMT
Warren Turner, left, and Daniel Jones stand next to a reel of conduit that will protect fiberoptic cable that will be installed at the Lexington Place housing development in Portsmouth, Va., on Friday Dec. 18, 2020. Jones is the city's chief information officer for Portsmouth's Department of Information Technology. Turner is the information systems manager the Portsmouth Redevelopment Housing Authority. The federal CARES Act funding is being used to provide broadband internet to the community. (AP Photo/Ben Finley)
Warren Turner, left, and Daniel Jones stand next to a reel of conduit that will protect fiberoptic cable that will be installed at the Lexington Place housing development in Portsmouth, Va., on Friday Dec. 18, 2020. Jones is the city's chief information officer for Portsmouth's Department of Information Technology. Turner is the information systems manager the Portsmouth Redevelopment Housing Authority. The federal CARES Act funding is being used to provide broadband internet to the community. (AP Photo/Ben Finley)
Warren Turner, left, and Daniel Jones stand next to a reel of conduit that will protect fiberoptic cable that will be installed at the Lexington Place housing development in Portsmouth, Va., on Friday Dec. 18, 2020. Jones is the city's chief information officer for Portsmouth's Department of Information Technology. Turner is the information systems manager the Portsmouth Redevelopment Housing Authority. The federal CARES Act funding is being used to provide broadband internet to the community. (AP Photo/Ben Finley)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Whenever Lynn Manweiler or anyone in her family needs to upload a video for work or school, they have to drive to a place with public wifi and sit in the parking lot. If her daughter has a Zoom call with her college professor, everyone else in the house needs to get offline. And at least a couple of times each week, they get knocked off the internet.

For many families in Virginia, not having high-speed internet has always been inconvenient. During the COVID-19 pandemic, with many people working at home and students doing virtual schooling, it’s been downright difficult.

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The Manweilers and others are hoping to see an improvement soon. Gov. Ralph Northam announced in October that Virginia would allocate $30 million in funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Recovery, and Economic Security (CARES) Act for projects designed to increase broadband access in underserved localities. The funding has been awarded to more than 50 cities and counties across the state and is expected to improve access to high-speed internet for nearly 31,000 households and businesses.

Some localities are using the money to build new infrastructure to connect households that could not get online at all, but will now have a fiber connection or wireless connection available. Other localities will use the money to subsidize the cost of service for low-income families. Still others are using the money to connect students to virtual education through mobile networks.

In rural southwest Virginia, Washington County was awarded just under $432,000 for two projects that will connect about 140 homes, six businesses and a church to high-speed internet.

“Hopefully, it will now be consistent and it will be reliable and it will be fast for my daughter to be able to do her schoolwork as long as she needs to,” Manweiler said.

“We just are excited that maybe we’ll be closer to what most everybody else has,” she said.

About 400 miles (640 kilometers) east, the city of Portsmouth received $750,000 to install a wireless mesh network for 1,065 public housing units. Residents who live in seven of the city’s public housing complexes will now have free access to high-speed internet.

The city is also installing 173 new access points throughout the city and several additional public wifi hotspots.

“It’s like extending an essential public utility to our residents,” said Daniel Jones, chief information officer for the city’s Department of Information Technology. “This is like the turn of the century with electricity — you can’t do without it now.”

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The broadband grants were awarded under a tight timeframe. Under the CARES Act, the funding had to be expended by Dec. 30 and the projects had to be at least partly in service by then.

Evan Feinman, the governor’s chief broadband advisor, said that as of the beginning of 2020, approximately 350,000 households in Virginia had no access to broadband infrastructure. Many others have access to broadband, but can’t afford to pay a monthly bill for the service. That number could be as high as 387,000, based on the number of households that qualify for food stamps.

“There are thousands and thousands of families in Virginia whose routines involve sometime after school lets out packing the kids into the car and driving the kids to a place where the kids can get online to do their work. That can be a McDonald’s, a school parking lot, a library or a Starbucks,” Feinman said.

Many of the projects are focused on connecting students. Approximately 200,000 students in grades kindergarten through 12 and 60,000 college students in Virginia don’t have access to broadband at home, according to the State Council of Higher Education.

In Prince William County, the money will be used for mobile hotspots for 4,000 low-income households with students, while in Nottoway County, the money will pay for 395 mobile hotspots for unserved students.

“It’s really an equity issue,” Feinman said. “The quality of life and the standard of living that’s enjoyed by the majority of Virginians is not enjoyed by a significant subset, and that’s not acceptable.”