Earlier in March Virginia lawmakers voted to use $700 million of federal pandemic relief funds to implement a broadband expansion plan allowing for high-speed Internet to be access in every household.
On Thursday, United States Senator Mark Warner met with company leaders and Board members at Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative to discuss a strategy for building out infrastructure to support the expansion.
“One thing that COVID showed is that high-speed, reliable, affordable broadband is an economic necessity. The idea that you are going to send your kid to a hot spot in the school parking lot may be a short-term answer but not a long-term answer. We have to build out to every home and the federal government has already put some money up but in this bipartisan infrastructure bill, which will be $65 billion. We in Virginia have moved faster than many states because we have allowed our utilities and co-ops to build part of the system making it more affordable. Handling a lot of the old term incumbents have not provided enough coverage so I’m here today visit with the folks that are doing it and see how we can get these funds out, once the bill is passed, as quickly as possible,” said Warner.
It is estimated that 233,500 homes and businesses within Virginia are currently without high-speed Internet access.
Though the $700 million is a start, there have been some concerns about that not being enough to complete the project that is predicted to be near finalization by 2024.
Mecklenburg Electric representatives estimate the total cost for a complete broadband expansion at around $1 billion.
“We’re struggling down here in Southside Virginia after losing textiles and furniture businesses over the years. If you look at the three county application that we are talking about we are going in for 50% of that. All three of those counties have really stepped up to the plate to the extent that they can. Obviously a lot of those dollars are based on population and other things,” said Vice President of Information Technology Dwayne Long.
Other that accessibility, affordability for lower income households is a leading reason that many homes are without Internet access. Warner says, “Out of the $65 billion, close to $25 billion will go towards affordability. We have got to make it available and affordable and it still has to get passed through the House but there will affordability component, which I hope that we will get down to a good high-speed plan at about $30 a month.”
“We’re pursuing a model in this legislative session that we’re going to need to resource the Department of Social Services adequately. Rather than forcing low-income households to know about this benefit themselves, DSS will do it for every qualifying person.” Longcontinued, “Right now the money goes straight from FCC to the ISP. What we want to do is let DSS break it all down and then pay the ISPs monthly. That way there is a knowledgeable advocate for all qualifying Virginians.”
“I think one of the things that speaks in favor of the Cooperative is our governance,” said President John C. Lee. “The folks that determine what our rates will be are here. Our Chairman and Vice Chairman on the Board live here. They are leaders in this community. They are the ones who decide what our rates are so we have got kind of a built in net if you will. Our long-term vision is in 5 to 6 years to be in a place with Empower Broadband, especially if everything we’re working on right now goes through, we can take those revenues and bring them back to Mecklenburg Electric to keep our rates down. Then what you have is an economic development tool because the first thing these folks ask when they come in is ‘What’s power going to cost?’ If we can utilize the funds to do that, then we get a double benefit.”
Board Chairman David Jones says that when the Board first looked at the plan they were not sure of it but they took a chance because of the need in the area. “It’s the same as it was in the 1930s when they didn’t have electricity and with the pandemic in the last 18 months, the situation just kind of blew up in your face. We took a structured approach and I’m glad we did. I think we have come a long way and things are falling into place for us.”