By Stefanie Jackson – Gov. Ralph Northam returned to his hometown of Onancock on Thursday for the announcement a $20 million investment in broadband internet on the Eastern Shore by Spectrum, a Charter Communications company.
Spectrum will provide services to more than 17,500 homes and businesses in Accomack and Northampton County.
The first phase of the Spectrum broadband expansion is complete, with service available to more than 7,000 customers. Another 11,000 customers are expected get connected in March 2021.
Spectrum offers broadband internet with speeds starting at 100 Mbps for residential customers, who can opt to upgrade their service to 400 Mbps or 1 gigabit with no data caps, modem fees, or contracts.
Small and medium-sized businesses can get service with speeds of 600 Mbps to 1 gigabit.
Low-income families and senior citizens who qualify for the Spectrum Internet Assist program can get 30 Mbps internet for $17.99, Spectrum’s way of helping to bridge the digital divide.
(Download speeds of 25 Mbps or higher are considered broadband – a standard set by the Federal Communications Commission.)
That digital divide has become more apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before COVID-19, nearly 100% of doctor visits were done in person, but now 75% of doctors’ interactions with patients are through telehealth, Northam said.
Many more children are participating in virtual learning as well.
“When families don’t have access to broadband … it becomes an equity issue,” Northam said.
Investment in broadband has been a priority of the governor since he took office, when only “about $4 million a year” was being spent on broadband at the state level.
The latest budget Northam has proposed includes $52 million for broadband, to be spent over the next two years. Virginia also will use $30 million of its Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security funding for broadband.
Northam said about 108,000 more families have gotten access to broadband since he took office, but about 500,000 Virginia families still go without, and many of them are on the Eastern Shore.
Investment in broadband is also an investment in the economy.
“Virginia is the number one state in this great country of ours in which to do business. … as long as we can keep working together and keep doing things like expanding broadband, then we’ll stay number one,” Northam said.
He likened the rural digital divide to the 20th-century struggle to connect America to the electrical grid.
Thomas Edison started his Illuminating Company in 1882, but it took 43 years until half of the country had electricity, Northam said.
“When we talk about investing in infrastructure now, it’s not just about roads and bridges, and tunnels and rail, and ports. It includes the internet as well,” agreed Rep. Elaine Luria.
Spectrum’s new customers in Onancock and elsewhere on the Eastern Shore will join 30 million others in 41 states.
In addition to high-speed internet, Spectrum offers TV, mobile, and voice services.