While there are so many hot button issues that dominate our TVs, there’s one that isn’t controversial — or at least it shouldn’t be: broadband access.
Electric cooperatives and their broadband affiliates like Firefly, where I am manager, have worked tirelessly to deliver it. Collectively, our efforts have brought the internet to over 30,000 Virginians since 2017.
But there’s more work to be done, and we need legislators’ help.
Right now, the legislature is voting on legislation that will allow Virginia to be a nationwide leader in delivering broadband access. Without this legislation, access to broadband for hundreds of thousands of Virginia families will be in jeopardy.
Virginia has invested $1 billion of taxpayer money into the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI) program to close the digital divide. Still, as cooperatives work to connect Virginians to the internet, they oftentimes have to place the fiber across rural obstacles including railroads. This process is known as a “crossing.” In the next few years, we must complete hundreds of crossings to keep up with our goal to connect the remaining 210,000 Virginians to the internet.
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Unfortunately, the bureaucratic system that allows that to happen takes up to 18 months to implement, even before construction begins. Charges run upwards of $20,000 per crossing. This threatens the ability to complete each and every one of those crossings.
Lucky for us, this year’s legislation will tackle these challenges head on. It will update the inadequate and inefficient system now riddled with delays. The law requires a reasonable timeline for all those Virginians begging for the internet to come to their door. It will also standardize fees and keep them reasonable so taxpayers don’t have to foot the bill for exorbitant charges. This ensures money from the VATI program goes towards what it is truly meant to do: connect unserved communities.
The bottom line is that we shouldn’t even be talking about this. This problem is nothing new. It’s been impacting our ability to deliver internet access to Virginians for over 10 years.
Virginians deserve better. Our taxpayer money should be going to close the digital divide. With this legislation, I have no doubt that we can do it.
I know I speak for my fellow cooperative members when I say that we are eager to partner with legislators, businesses, and the railroads to lead our Commonwealth forward. Some issues are complicated. This one is simple.