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Bill could boost broadband

U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, announced a $100 billion piece of legislation Thursday, July 9, that could significantly expand broadband in the area.

Sen. Mark Warner

“The Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act would invest $100 billion to build high-speed broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved communities, helping to bridge the digital divide that still exists in cities and towns all across the country,” he wrote in the emailed announcement titled “A Plan for Rural Broadband.”

“In addition to establishing broadband infrastructure nationwide, this bill would also put guidelines in place to make sure affordable internet service plans are made available by internet service providers,” he continued. “It would also help provide discounts on internet service for low-income consumers and students and would establish grants to help expand digital inclusion at a local level.”

Gary Wood, president and CEO of Central Virginia Electric Cooperative and Firefly Fiber Broadband, offered a preliminary evaluation of the bill Warner is proposing.

“First of all, I applaud all efforts at the federal, state and local level of people who are trying to help solve the digital divide that we have in the rural areas,” he said. “So I think from that perspective, it’s a good bill.”

He noted he does not know the exact numbers for funding yet but said the bill certainly has a good bit of funding in it for rural broadband.

“I think the mechanisms they use, which are the state block grants and things, are efficient ways to do that,” he said. “I think our state does a good job, when it has funds, of having them distributed in areas that have the need for broadband expansion. So I think it has some good things.”

He said the bill specifically talks about cooperative organizations being eligible, noting this is good.

“I think it makes clear that they understand cooperatives are part of the solution in rural areas, and that’s become a pretty standard view of most folks at the federal and state levels,” he said.

Another positive he mentioned was that the bill has specific language that favors gigabit-speed solutions.

“I think if you look at having an approach that awards the very best solution we have today, you fix the problem for longer term than if you have a solution that is something you can get by with today, but it’s not leading-edge technology,” he said. “Then you’re going to go back and fund the same area again in a few years to upgrade it to catch it up again.”

Wood was also pleased with how the bill aims to keep monthly payments for users low.

“They’ve gotten some specific money set aside to help provide for low-or-moderate income households to ensure that it is affordable,” he said. “They’re doing some things on the provider side to publicize rates and encourage lower rates. And then on the user side, they’re providing some support for the families who need it to make sure that they can get a basic level of broadband with an allowance of up to $50 a month, which gets a basic service level that would provide really good speeds.”

The first concern Wood stated is just that the bill gets passed, starting with the U.S. House of Representatives.

“It’ll have a tough time in the Senate, because right now, it’s just sponsored by folks in the Democratic party,” he said. “And with politics in Washington, that makes it difficult.”

State Sen. Frank Ruff Jr., a Republican who represents Virginia’s 15th district, communicated optimism about the bill but was also quick to analyze the politics of the situation.

“If it passes and does what it says it’s going to do, it would have to help us,” he said. “But the devil is probably in the details when you talk about that much money. And then you start looking at the breakdown, it sounds like to me they’re buying a lot of bureaucracy in the middle of it.

“But other than that, I don’t know,” he continued. “I think it’s interesting that there are five or six co-sponsors, all are Democrats, and they have not reached out to get any Republican support for it. So, I don’t know whether it’s a political stunt or if it’s purely aspirational.”

He said he thinks people are starting to wonder where all the money is coming from.

“We spent a lot of money on the virus period and all that,” he said. “If (the bill is) going to be successful, my guess is going to be it’s over a several-year period. It wouldn’t be $100 billion split 50 ways or any other formula. It would be, probably, some over x number of years, which is probably safer than trying to throw out that much money at one time, because it would not get spent wisely.”