Increasing broadband access

Delegate Roslyn Tyler, left, 75th District Virginia House of Delegates; Evan Feinman, Chief Broadband Advisor to the Governor; and President of Paul D. Camp Community College Dr. Corey McCray are shown with Governor Ralph Northam.

FRANKLIN – On June 9, 2021, Governor Ralph Northam visited the Workforce Development Center at Camp Community College in Franklin to sign “historic” legislation that expands broadband accessibility across unserved areas of Virginia.

Attending the bill signing were Delegate Roslyn C. Tyler, Chief patron of the legislation, House Bill 2304, representing the 75th District in the Virginia House of Delegate and Evan Feinman, the Governor’s Chief broadband Advisor. Senator Jennifer Boysko was chief patron of the same legislation, Senate Bill 1413.

Additionally, there were over 75 elected officials, business and community leaders throughout Southside Virginia in attendance.

The new legislation makes permanent the pilot program under which a Phase I or Phase II electric utility is permitted to petition the State Corporation Commission to provide broadband capacity to unserved areas of the Commonwealth.

The bill also expands the program to allow for the participation of municipalities and government-owned broadband authorities. The bill provides that investor-owned electric utilities may recover costs of and revenue generated from providing broadband capacity that serves as an electric grid transformation project in areas unserved by broadband, as defined in the bill.

The bill furthermore consolidates the State Corporation Commission petition approval process into one hearing.

Before introducing the governor, Feinman shared his thoughts on the importance of this bill and its future impact on citizens across the state.

“The best single thing that we have done in the course of all of this work is the bill Gov. Northam’s about to sign here today,” Feinman said. “Bringing [American Electric Power] and Dominion into the broadband program is good for electric grids, it’s good for tax payers, and it’s good for getting more Virginians online.

“It’s a win-win-win, and this bill today makes permanent a pilot program that we just got started a couple of years ago that has already led to universal coverage projects in more than five counties, with more than a dozen in the queue right now to get approved at the State Corporation Commission. This is huge. There are tens of thousands of folks who are going to get online as a result of this,” said Feinman.

Feinman thanked Delegate Tyler and also Senator Jennifer Boysko, who was unable to attend the bill signing, for introducing the legislation in the House and Senate and for working to get it through the General Assembly.

Delegate Tyler talked about broadband being at the top of the list when she travels around her district and talks with local leaders and citizens. She said wherever she goes broadband is one of the first things people tell her they need.

“Talking to local elected officials, we know that broadband is a necessity for economic development in our area,” said Tyler. “We can’t do without it. Just like water and sewer, today it is an important component when trying to recruit new business. And so, I was proud this year to introduce this piece of legislation that will expand broadband accessibility across unserved areas in the commonwealth.”

Delegate Tyler said that partnerships are important in expanding broadband and encouraged localities to be creative in order to get the funding that is necessary.

“We’re talking about partnerships because we know local governments cannot afford to do it by themselves,” she said. “But we have to take advantage of the opportunities … You have to apply for the money.”

The House of Appropriation in the 2021- 2022 budget included $100 million dollars for funding localities through competitive grants.

Northam compared the importance of broadband to the importance of electrification, detailing how it began in the United States in 1920.

“When it started in 1920, about 35% of the population had electricity, and it’s just like broadband, everybody needs it,” said Northam. “And so they really pushed hard back in the 1920s and within a few years got up to 90% of folks having electricity, and we can do that here in Virginia. We want to be leaders, and we’re, I think, really in a good position to do that.”

Northam said when he started as governor in 2018, Virginia was putting about $4 million a year into broadband expansion efforts, and he and his administration later raised that to around $20 million.

“This year, in our budget, and we have the resources to do it, we’re putting $50 million a year over two years, we’re also adding $30 million from federal funding, and then we have the (American) Rescue Plan, which we’re actually working on now, so there will be more coming into broadband, but we’re not holding anything back, and I wanted you all to know that,” he said.

After the event, Delegate Tyler said that having Broadband expansion/ High Speed internet continues to be one of her priorities and the Covid-19 pandemic has proven the necessity of reliable internet services for education, businesses, agriculture, economic development, healthcare and more.

“As a member of the General Assembly, House Appropriations Committee and Vice-Chair of the Virginia Broadband Advisory Council, I will continue to seek ways to expand broadband across the 75th District and Commonwealth of Virginia,” said Tyler.