House advances bill to increase access to broadband internet
Lack of rural broadband connection during pandemic is pressing problem
The House is set to pass a bipartisan bill that would provide increased access to broadband internet throughout Virginia.
The bill, HB2304, sponsored by Del. Roslyn C. Tyler, D-Jarratt, passed unanimously Tuesday out of the Labor and Commerce Committee and was read for the whole House Wednesday for the first time.
The bill makes permanent a pilot program that was created in 2019. It also streamlines the process by which the State Corporation Commission approves or denies applications for expanded broadband.
“Effectively, the way this program works is it recognizes that large investor-owned utilities are going to be building communications networks within their electrical grids, for the purpose of updating and modernizing their electrical grids,” said Evan Feinman, who serves as chief broadband officer for Gov. Ralph Northam.
“What we did was create a mechanism by which internet service providers localities and our investor-owned electric utilities can work together.”
Lack of broadband access, particularly in rural areas, has been a pressing problem in the state exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Tyler said in a phone interview. Approximately 306,000 Virginians do not have access to any wired internet options, according to a report by BroadbandNow.
Since the pandemic has forced many schools and workplaces online, those without proper broadband access are suffering the most.
“Lack of broadband access has become the greatest equity issue that our rural students face,” said Keith Perrigan, superintendent of Bristol Public Schools and president of the Coalition of Small and Rural Schools of Virginia, during the subcommittee hearing.
Feinman said, “This [bill] is one of those rare win-wins in which we have the opportunity to both expand broadband and reduce electrical bills all at once.”
As a part of the pilot, a partnership between Northern Neck Electric Cooperative, Dominion Power, All Points Broadband and the state was announced Tuesday. This collaboration will get universal coverage in four entire Northern Neck counties, connecting more than 10,000 homes, Feinman said.
SB1413, sponsored by Sen. Jennifer B. Boysko, D-Ashburn, is also being proposed in tandem with HB2304. A reading of the bill was dispensed unanimously on the Senate floor on Wednesday.
“We hope to reach that goal that everyone has broadband access in the next five to ten years,” Tyler said.
Through the Capital News Service, University of Richmond journalism students provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.