Infrastructure bill a “shot in the arm” for rural high speed internet expansion in southwest Virginia

Lynchburg & Central Virginia News

BEDFORD COUNTY, Va. (WFXR) — Expanding broadband in rural communities is generally a lot more expensive per person than in more densely populated areas, where a mile of wire can service a lot more people than a mile of wire in a rural area. As Bedford County Administrator Robert Hiss explains, the natural geography of the area he oversees can add additional hurdles.

“Private dirt roads that go up side of hills that may not work well for fiber, the mountains, some of the mountain terrain,” said Hiss.

Back in May, Bedford County put out requests for proposals from internet service providers for universal broadband projects, anticipating that more federal funds would be made available for this exact purpose.

The county got six proposals.

“Some of them are wireless. Some of them are utilizing our existing towers that the county helped fund,” Hiss said. “We have other proposals that are fiber…it’s going to end up being a combination of all.”

Hiss says internet service providers will cover 30 to 50 percent of the cost, explaining that they have a financial stake in expanded high-speed internet. Federal funds will help, too.

Now, the infrastructure bill making its way through Congress has a number of funding proposals for roads, bridges, airports, and the internet.

Out of the billions of dollars marked for broadband expansion, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine says about $100 million of that will come to Virginia. That’s on top of the $700 million Gov. Ralph Northam recently announced would be allocated from the American Rescue Plan to help with broadband expansion.

“That is the shot in the arm in order to move these items forward,” said Hiss.

Once Virginia gets the $100 million, where will it go?

It’s an issue Kaine recognizes is key when addressing how to equitably help all regions of the state.

“How can we be sure that the dollars will be used especially to serve people in hard to serve regions of the state,” said Kaine, “rural areas, generally southwest Virginia.”

He says distribution is up to the state. The governor’s office didn’t respond to our request for comment, but Kaine says based on his conversations with the southwest Virginia community, he believes the region feels seen on this issue and won’t be forgotten.

“People view the governor’s office as really carefully analyzed where the gaps are in Virginia, and they have been pretty strategic in trying to invest the dollars to close the gaps,” said Kaine.

After expansion, there’s still another problem. Lack of competition among service providers means oftentimes, residents only have one company to turn to for service, and the rates can reflect that.

“A lot of them may not be able to afford $100, $125 a month in order to have that high-speed internet,” said Hiss, explaining that building the infrastructure doesn’t necessarily mean his residents will have the means to use it.

Kaine told WFXR News some of those funds in the $100 million allotments will go towards addressing affordability.

“To help hundreds of thousands of Virginians more able to afford broadband,” said Kaine.

Kaine says he expects the Senate to vote on the bill in the next couple of days.

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