Northam proposes using $700M for Virginia broadband access

ABINGDON, Va. (AP) — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Friday called for using $700 million in federal coronavirus relief money to expand broadband infrastructure in the state.

Northam said using $700 million from American Rescue Plan funding would allow the state to connect unserved areas and achieve universal internet access by 2024, four years earlier than originally planned under Northam’s 10-year goal to close the digital divide in Virginia.

The money would come from Virginia’s $4.3 billion portion of American Rescue Plan funding. Lawmakers will meet next month for a special session to allocate the funding.

Northam and fellow Democrats who control the General Assembly have previously said their priorities for the money include public health, rebuilding the state’s unemployment trust fund and accelerating broadband access. Earlier this week, Northam called for $353 million to go toward boosting economic recovery efforts for small businesses and industries that were hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

Northam made the announcement at the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center in Abingdon, joined by U.S. Sen. Mark Warner and state lawmakers who head the General Assembly’s money committees and Virginia’s Broadband Advisory Council. Northam said Virginia has made strong progress toward achieving universal internet access, but there are still 233,500 unserved locations.

“It’s time to close the digital divide in our Commonwealth and treat internet service like the 21st century necessity that it is — not just a luxury for some, but an essential utility for all,” Northam said in a statement.

Northam said the pandemic has shown how important high-quality broadband is for health, education and economic opportunity. “We cannot afford to leave any community behind,” Northam said.

Warner said that with telehealth and telework becoming fixtures around the country during the pandemic, access to broadband is more important than ever.

Since 2018, the state has awarded approximately $124 million in broadband grants and connected more than 140,000 homes, businesses and community anchors.