By Carol Vaughn —
Broadband’s role in rural prosperity was the focus of the 7th Annual Governor’s Summit on Rural Prosperity, held virtually Wednesday.
The summit was presented by the Virginia Rural Center, a partnership of the Center for Rural Virginia and the Council for Rural Virginia. The two organizations work together on a joint mission of economic prosperity for rural Virginia communities.
Gov. Ralph Northam in his keynote address said among his priorities is for all Virginians, including rural Virginians, “to have access to a good job and the skills to get it.”
“Working together, we can make progress, and we can do that by working together to make sure that our rural communities have what they need — access to a first-class education, quality jobs, broadband, and health care. … Broadband connects all those other needs,” he said, adding, “Universal broadband access has been a priority since I took office and the pandemic has only strengthened our commitment to ensuring that all Virginians can get on line.”
Around 660,000 Virginians, many in rural areas, still lack access to high-speed internet.
“We can’t allow rural Virginia to be left behind in the 21st century economy,” Northam said.
Agriculture, “by far our largest private industry,” requires high-speed internet access to function optimally, Northam said, noting a recent USDA study found that, nationwide, “ubiquitous broadband would lead to 18% growth in agriculture.”
Northam announced earlier this month the state will use $30 million in federal CARES Act funds to improve broadband access in underserved communities.
In addition to farmers, broadband access for students is critical.
In Virginia, 200,000 K-12 students and 60,000 college students, many in rural areas, lack access at home, according to the State Council on Higher Education.
Officials announced earlier this month that more than $220 million in CARES Act dollars will go to help Virginia public schools with COVID-19 response, Northam said.
Health care is another area where broadband access is vital, in particular during the COVIS-19 pandemic. Northam, a pediatric neurologist, said around 75% of patient contacts at his former medical office are now through telemedicine.
Still, even during the pandemic, Virginia has seen record economic development, with over $32 billion in capital investment and 75,000 new jobs over the last 20 months, according to Northam.
While large companies including Merck, Volvo, West Rock, and Hershey, among others, have chosen to locate in Virginia, most of the state’s economic growth comes from small businesses, Northam said.
The governor’s Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development Fund in the last year funded 12 projects in rural Virginia, representing more than $111 million in capital investment and 309 new jobs, as well as $229 million in Virginia grown agriculture and forestry purchases. One project is at Shore Breeze Farms in Northampton County, which expanded its hydroponic greenhouse facility to provide year-round produce.
Industrial hemp is another area in which Virginia agriculture is growing.
“There are over 1,200 industrial hemp farmers in Virginia; I may be 1,201 in another year,” Northam said, adding one way to support those farmers “is to create new markets for industrial hemp processing and products.”
Last week, Northam attended the grand opening of Golden Piedmont Labs in Halifax County, Virginia’s first large-scale industrial hemp/CBD extraction facility.
“The idea for Golden Piedmont Labs began as an effort to support our agriculture community, especially our tobacco farmers. This is an exciting win for rural Virginia,” Northam said.
Secretary of Commerce Brian Ball said broadband expansion “is a matter of fairness and equity,” noting the administration’s goal is to have universal access in Virginia by 2028.
Around 108,000 previously unconnected households and businesses have gotten access since Northam took office, after some $44 million in state grants to help address unserved areas.
Another $85 million is budgeted for broadband expansion over the next four years, Ball said.
Evan Feinman, Northam’s chief broadband advisor, said the COVID-19 crisis “has only really deepened the impact of the digital divide.”
The Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI) at present is evaluating requests for more than $105 million for broadband projects.
Feinman moderated a panel discussion on rural broadband with Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-7th) and Rep. Rob Wittman (R-1st), who he described as “incredible advocates” for rural Americans, in particular as relates to broadband connectivity.
“The fact of the matter is the federal government has not made this a priority, and should have,” he said, adding, “This is a problem we’ve known about for years and years and years.”
Wittmer said 30% of rural residents have no broadband access at all and half have access to internet only at slow speeds of around 25 megabytes per second for downloads and 3 megabytes per second for uploads.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the incredible importance to rural areas of broadband,” he said.
Wittmer called for “a fair portion” of $138 billion left over in the last round of CARES Act funding to be dedicated to broadband expansion, and to do so in the form of block grants handled by the states.
The FCC on Oct. 29 will hold an auction of the 2.5 gigahertz spectrum to companies that want to go into unserved localities, which Wittmer said could help with getting broadband to more rural residents through wireless technology.
“It will be almost $16 billion of auction going out the door. …We believe we can add as many as 200,000 additional connections in Virginia. That gets a long ways to where the governor wants us to be and where all of us want to be,” Wittmer said.
“I believe we’ll see more happen in the next two years than we have seen happen in the past 10 years,” he said.
Spanberger said broadband access “is fundamentally an issue of equity and opportunity,” likening lacking broadband access now to electricity lagging in coming to rural areas of the United States in the 20th century.
“COVID-19 has further shown us the urgent need to really close, and permanently close, this digital divide. The disparities have real public health and economic impacts,” she said.
Spanberger noted she, as a member of the House Rural Broadband Task Force, helped introduce the Accessible, Affordable Connectivity for All Act.
The legislation would provide for investments of over $100 billion to build high-speed broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved communities to ensure that the resulting internet service is affordable.