Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Friday announced plans to invest $700 million in federal relief money toward the state’s goal of achieving universal broadband access over the next three years.
The proposal, which involves using funds from the American Rescue Plan to build out last-mile broadband infrastructure throughout the state, aims to move up Northam’s self-imposed deadline for universal broadband access from 2028 to 2024. A majority of the connections to be built with the $700 million will be completed within the next 18 months, the governor’s office said in a press release.
The commonwealth has bridged “half” of its digital divide, the governor said at a press conference, with an estimated 233,500 unserved homes and businesses remaining. Earlier this year, Virginia officials issued nearly $30 million in grants to expand broadband access to roughly 11,700 households.
“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 Friday’s press release. “The pandemic has reinforced how important high-quality broadband is for the health, education, and economic opportunity, and we cannot afford to leave any community behind. With this historic $700 million investment, universal broadband is now within our reach.”
At least 16% of Virginians lack access to broadband according to BroadbandNow, and at the height of the pandemic last year, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia estimated that 200,000 K-12 students and 60,000 college students lacked access at home. Northam has invested heavily in broadband throughout his term, awarding approximately $124 million in grants to connect more than 140,000 businesses and residences since 2018.