Virginia communities without reliable broadband Internet are at a distinct disadvantage and suffer in a number of ways. That’s not new.
However, in the throes of a pandemic that shows no signs of being over soon, having access to reliable high-speed internet is more essential than ever for people’s jobs, education, health care and safety as well as for economic survival and future growth for the state’s rural areas.
The changes wrought by COVID-19 make it crucial to extend affordable, reliable high-speed internet to the hundreds of thousands of Virginians who don’t have it. And the quicker, the better, because the time when they really need it is now.
Many of the state’s leaders have realized for years that the disparity in access to high-speed internet takes a serious toll on rural areas including south-central and southwest Virginia and the Eastern Shore.
Businesses and industries don’t venture there. Residents can’t easily telecommute or do freelance work. Existing businesses and farmers find it hard to compete without the internet access that would help them keep up with changing practices. Students can’t take advantage of online programs. Veterans, the elderly, people without good transportation and others who could benefit from online services don’t have that option.
The list is long without even mentioning online entertainment and connections via social media that most of us take for granted.
Early on, Gov. Ralph Northam made closing the digital divide a top priority. Two years ago, he announced a broadband initiative for rural areas, including significantly increased funding.
There’s been some real progress. But now the pandemic has thrown the state’s budget into disarray, making less money available for the broadband expansion.
With everything else that’s worrying Virginians these days, helping those remote areas gain access to high-speed internet might seem a low priority.
But for residents and businesses, the pandemic has made gaining access to high-speed internet more urgent than ever.
Suddenly, working from home is not just an unavailable luxury for a lot of people, but a necessity. Those with children whose schools were closed needed reliable access to online instruction. Many doctors’ offices turned to telemedicine for routine visits, but people without internet are left out. In these stressful times, people, including veterans, can’t take advantage of virtual counseling and mental-health services without good internet. People can’t shop online for hard-to-find items.
Without good internet, small businesses can’t shift their work and services online.
For some who were already barely scraping by, challenges posed by the pandemic may be the final straw. Some, even if they were offered internet service now, might not be able to afford it.
Some relief is in the works, but more is needed. The $2 trillion CARES Act Congress passed in March didn’t include funds directly for rural communities, but some of the federal aid the state is passing on to those areas might be used for internet initiatives. Additional aid, including money for broadband, has stalled in the U.S. Senate.
Virginia’s Sen. Mark Warner has been trying to get the Federal Communications Commission to cut red tape and pass a rule that would expedite broadband expansion by making TV white space — channels between active channels — available to internet service providers willing to serve rural areas.
Appalachian Power Co., the American Electric Power Foundation, school systems and others are working to set up internet hot spots in underserved areas.
Appalachian Power and Dominion Energy are continuing work under a law enacted last year that allows them to install cables to bring broadband to electric substations in hard-to-reach areas, where local providers might be able to provide the “last mile” to reach homes and businesses.
Some of these measures are emergency solutions worth doing because people need help now. Meanwhile, it’s critical to keep working on permanent solutions to make broadband available to all regions. The entire commonwealth will be stronger for the effort.
©2020 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
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