State is ahead of the curve with broadband plans

Published 1:00 pm Tuesday, July 9, 2024

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Amid a national movement to close the digital divide, Virginia continues to lead the way toward universal broadband access.

Broadband providers, vendors, state officials and other stakeholders heard about Virginia’s progress in extending broadband infrastructure during the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Summit in Richmond in June.

Last summer, Virginia netted $1.48 billion in federal Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment grant program funds. The nationwide program awards $42.45 billion to expand high-speed internet access through funding, planning, infrastructure deployment and adoption programs.

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The Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, the lead agency for administering the program, and Virginia Tech secured an additional $250 million in BEAD funding for correcting the Federal Communications Commission’s national broadband map early last year.

Virginia has been “ahead of the curve” in deploying broadband, noted Tamarah Holmes, Virginia’s broadband office director. She highlighted innovative efforts like initiating the development of a statewide broadband availability map in 2010 and launching the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative in 2017 to spearhead expansion efforts.

Since 2017, VATI has awarded $935 million to connect over 300,000 locations to broadband — leveraging $1.2 billion in private and local resources. In April, 5,000 locations received access to broadband through the program, Holmes said.

Virginia also was the first state to submit its BEAD 5-Year Plan and initial proposal.

“While we’ve made some progress, of course we have a long ways to go,” Holmes noted.

BEAD funds will build upon VATI’s work to reach the remaining unserved homes, businesses and community institutions across Virginia that lack existing broadband infrastructure.

The Virginia housing department launched the BEAD challenge process last fall to confirm that all locations without access to high-speed internet and participation in an existing deployment project are included in the initiative. Virginia “challenged” over 1.9 million service claims on the national broadband map and added over 80,000 unserved and underserved locations.

DHCD has since narrowed its initial list of over 162,000 BEAD-eligible locations to around 115,000 locations, which they are working to finalize with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

“We all have the same goal in the room, for the BEAD program and the state broadband office of getting to 100% coverage across Virginia,” said Chandler Vaughan, senior policy analyst for Virginia’s broadband office. “But getting to 100% is only as good as the maps are.”

The Virginia broadband office will launch its BEAD application process for broadband providers after Virginia’s challenge process results and initial proposal are approved.

The summit included an afternoon workshop to help prepare providers for the multi-staged application process, which state officials hope to start up this fall. Virginia’s broadband office also plans to push out more technical assistance resources in the coming months.

Virginia’s 5-Year Plan also outlines goals for improving broadband affordability and adoption through technological skills training and other programs.

“The wide-ranging benefits of connectivity, including smart farming, building a business online, and telehealth, will keep Virginia competitive in a fast-changing, connected world,” the plan states.