ROANOKE — A top issue for some Virginians is broadband. They want faster internet. They want affordable internet. Some just want internet, rather than using a mobile hot spot or driving to the nearest McDonald’s to send emails.
Gov. Ralph Northam set an ambitious goal to get the entire state connected to broadband by 2022. That goal won’t be met, so the next governor needs to continue the effort. All of the candidates running for governor want to close the digital divide. But they differ on how.
Many of the candidates said they would continue to support large investments in the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative, the primary mechanism the commonwealth uses to reach areas where there is no broadband. The state created the program in 2016 to provide grants for last-mile broadband infrastructure, which is the part of the network that connects individual homes and businesses to the broader network.
“We need to build out what we’ve started,” former Virginia House Speaker Kirk Cox, a Republican from Colonial Heights, said at a forum. Terry McAuliffe, a former Democratic governor seeking a second term, committed to investing $75 million each year of a new four-year term to close the digital divide and to subsidizing internet costs for low-income families.
“This is a crucial component of my plans to rebuild a stronger, more equitable post-COVID economy, ensure all Virginia children have access to a world-class education, and bring good jobs and economic activity to every community, particularly rural communities that have been hit hard by this pandemic,” he said in a statement.
Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a Democrat, said he would continue to “ramp up” funding for VATI, which has gone from $1 million in 2017 to $50 million this year.
Virginia is one the most restrictive states in the country for municipal broadband, including bureaucratic, competition and funding barriers. Groups like the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority have pushed ahead with public broadband infrastructure despite these legal hurdles.
Jennifer Carroll Foy, a Democrat and former delegate from Prince William County, has vowed to roll back those impediments. Carroll Foy has been critical about the political influence of the telecommunications industry, which she says has been making it difficult to expand rural broadband because it’s protecting its own financial interests.
Carroll Foy said she also wants to develop a pilot program to subsidize high-speed internet for Virginians who are eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. The General Assembly considered a proposal to do this earlier this year, but it didn’t make it through the budget negotiation process.
Del. Lee Carter, a self-proclaimed socialist from Manassas, wants to use an entirely different approach to what Virginia is currently doing.
“We’ve been spending millions and millions of dollars trying to subsidize Verizon and Comcast and Cox to run these wires for years, and they have not done it and they will not do it, because these for-profit corporations are not going to be able to turn a profit off of running the wires, no matter how much we spend on it,” Carter said.
Carter said he would hire state employees to run the cable and then hand the infrastructure over to electrical co-ops and municipal broadband authorities to operate the services.
Because she works as a corporate attorney for Verizon, state Sen. Jennifer McClellan’s voting record on broadband is limited. The Democrat from Richmond abstains from votes in the General Assembly on issues related to telecommunications.
Her campaign said she would allow municipal broadband authorities to compete for state grants to deploy broadband to areas with no internet or slow speeds and lift other restrictions.
“The bottom line is the areas that are not connected are the most expensive to connect, so we have to work to invest in putting the infrastructure either in the ground or in the air to meet the specific needs based on their geography,” McClellan said in a forum. “That’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all solution. For some localities, public-private partnerships will work, for some it’s authorities, for some it’s letting the locality do the infrastructure and provide the service themselves.”
When McClellan mentions “in the air,” she’s referring to satellite internet, a new and unproven technology that’s gaining interest from rural residents who don’t have broadband access. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has been launching satellites into orbit to test if they can deliver reliable high-speed internet to rural and remote homes.
“I do think it’s humorous that we actually look to lay fiber when Elon Musk has solved this problem for us,” said Glenn Youngkin, a former hedge fund executive seeking the Republican nomination. “We can get broadband access across Virginia, and it’ll be cheaper than anything a government can actually do.”
Youngkin’s campaign didn’t answer questions about if he would put state funding toward satellite internet.
McAuliffe said that while Virginia builds out broadband infrastructure, he would make “state funding available to support interim solutions like satellite internet until we achieve full coverage.”