SOUTH BOSTON, Va. (WFXR) — Broadband internet is still not available in many parts of Virginia, but there are efforts to change that.
Congressman Denver Riggleman (R-Afton) held a forum this week in Mecklenberg County to highlight the need to improve rural broadband internet access across his sprawling Fifth Congressional District and the entire Commonwealth.
“Seventy-six percent [of residents in Virginia’s Fifth Congressional District] don’t have access to what they really need on a daily basis,” Riggleman said.
A report issued by Commonwealth Connect, a state agency under the office of Gov. Ralph Northam (D-Va.), says approximately 660,000 Virginians lack access to broadband internet access. The lack of rural broadband access in Virginia limits opportunities in a variety of areas, ranging from education to business and medicine.
But even determining the number of people underserved by rural broadband access in Virginia and across the nation is a challenge. Earlier this week, WFXRtv.com’s Washington Bureau reported on the Federal Communication Commission’s difficulty in mapping underserved areas, with many service providers not freely sharing data due to proprietary concerns.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said fixing America’s digital divide is one of his top priorities. He has proposed a capital investment of more than $20 billion to address the problem and build out the nation’s digital infrastructure.
“From our perspective any company, any technology that could be brought to bear on this problem, we want to encourage more of them to participate,” Pai said.
Riggleman says he is trying to do his part for Virginia, bringing together leaders on both sides of the aisle – including representatives of Gov. Northam’s office and the U.S. Department of Agriculture – to discuss solutions at his recent broadband forum.
A member of the Rural Broadband Caucus in Congress, Riggleman said he is not just talking about rural broadband in Virginia but is actively working to bring money home for improved infrastructure. He co-sponsored H.R. 3162 on Tuesday, the Broadband Data Improvement Act of 2019, which would deploy broadband to more parts of rural America. Legislation already passed earlier this year included more than $600 million in block grants for rural broadband expansion. Riggleman said upcoming reauthorization of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) would also include block grants for rural broadband expansion. He is hopeful broadband will also be part of any infrastructure plan which may come before Congress.
But Riggleman is not waiting for new bills to pass, noting that his office is working with local municipalities to connect community leaders and rural internet service providers with the right agencies to secure some of the block grants up for grabs. In July, Riggleman’s office announced more than $27 million in grant funding for Bedford, Brunswick, Charlotte, Lunenburg, and Mecklenburg counties to expand broadband internet access.
“The reason we work with state and local governments is [that] they can put the rural broadband where they need it,” Riggleman said. “The federal government doesn’t know, the states do.”