Increasing Broadband in SWVA... Senator Todd Pillion
The 2021 session of the General Assembly was a lot of things. One thing it was good for, though, was rural broadband.
Broadband expansion is a top issue in my office every year, but as the COVID-19 pandemic shifted nearly everything online overnight, reliable high-speed internet has become make or break for many families and businesses across rural Virginia. It is the 21st century utility.
Space-based internet in the coalfields
The budget that we passed and sent to the governor’s desk includes significant investments in broadband, including targeted funding to expand an innovative pilot project in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia. This project, funded with $500,000 in the state budget, supports the expansion of high-speed satellite-based broadband within the LENOWISCO and Cumberland Plateau Planning Districts for educational and telemedicine purposes.
Last year Wise County and Starlink, a SpaceX satellite-based internet system, formed a partnership to expand internet service to students lacking access. Wise County is the first school division in Virginia—and one of the first in the nation—to connect students to the internet via space. This partnership served as the basis for securing state dollars to expand the project.
Broadband is expensive, especially in the mountainous terrain of Southwest Virginia where there are many physical and fiscal barriers to connecting that “last mile”. As technology continues to evolve, new space-based satellite internet programs like this can provide a viable and more cost-efficient alternative to expanding internet to rural and unserved areas.
Also included in the budget is a $50 million investment in broadband through the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI). This is a competitive grant-based program through which providers and localities partner to build out broadband infrastructure and connect homes and businesses.
In 2020 my office actively supported nearly $10 million in VATI applications for Southwest Virginia.
In 2019 our legislative delegation supported a bill championed by Delegate Israel O’Quinn that allows public utilities to increase broadband capacity in unserved areas. This led to a pilot project with AEP in Grayson County, the least connected county in Virginia. Through this pilot, the risk of laying the lines and providing the broadband capacity for service falls completely on AEP.
Two years later, the General Assembly just passed additional legislation making permanent the pilot program under which electric utilities are permitted to petition the State Corporation Commission to provide broadband capacity to unserved areas of Virginia. This expands our ability to pursue projects similar to the one with AEP and Grayson County.
Improving broadband maps
Accurate mapping is a fundamental component of broadband expansion; however, maps are only as good as the data on which they are based. Without detailed and current maps, it can be challenging to determine the serviceability of a particular address or the extent of broadband capacity and speeds in a particular area. This information is crucial when localities and providers are working to identify potential projects and apply for grant funding.
To improve broadband mapping in Virginia, the budget includes $424,000 to support the creation of a statewide broadband map. The Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), in coordination with the Office of the Chief Broadband Advisor, will develop a statewide broadband availability map indicating broadband coverage, including maximum broadband speeds available in service territories in Virginia. The first map is required by July 1, 2022.
Having passed the General Assembly, these initiatives are now before the governor for approval. We know that broadband is more important than ever and it is my hope we can all continue working together to get our families, businesses, and communities connected.