(WFXR)– More than half a million Virginians in 20 counties have little to no broadband access, that’s according to the Regional Vice Northeast Region Western Governors University, Dr. Rebecca Watts.

She says when it comes to broadband access, rural areas are getting hit hard.

“The issues really cross all areas of need that families have, education, access to government services, access to remote healthcare, and remote legal services,” Dr. Watts.

She explains education is one of her top priorities because it is impacting K-12 and adult learners who want to continue to grow and advance their learning.

She believes the lack of access is putting people in a bubble and shutting them out.

“We see big achievement gaps between students of poverty and student who are not in poverty, and this is really the bottom line,” Dr. Watts.

She says it also impacts educators because they do their lesson planning on nights and weekends.

“If they are living in a rural area that doesn’t have high-speed internet broadband they are struggling themselves to create the lesson plans.”

This then steamrolls into them not accessing the resources they need to properly teach their students.

Although there is work being done to combat the concern.

In a statement, The Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development says expanding broadband access is a priority.

Since 2017, Virginia has invested more than $846 million to connect over 429,000 homes, businesses, and community anchors.

DHCD launched the Line Extension Customer Assistance Program (LECAP) to support the extension of existing broadband networks to low- to moderate-income residents.

Through the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative, over 358,000 locations will have broadband access through $798.7 million in state investments once all projects are completed. These investments have leveraged an additional $1.1 billion in matching funds from local governments and internet service providers (ISPs).

DHCD will also administer the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment Program (BEAD) funds allocated to Virginia from the federal government. BEAD is a federal program intended to fund broadband infrastructure deployment projects. Virginia is in the planning stages now for these funds and we anticipate knowing the amount of the state’s full allocation under BEAD by June 30. 

The Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD)

They also have a helpful tool, in partnership with Virginia Tech, allowing Virginians to discover broadband in their neighborhood.

It’s called the ‘Commonwealth Connection.’

According to the DHCD, “the Commonwealth Connection is a powerful tool developed by DHCD and Virginia Tech that allows Virginians to discover broadband in their community and filter specific details. The information is completely based on information submitted by internet service providers (ISPs) in Virginia. This analysis tool offers a new look at service availability in the Commonwealth and sheds light on which areas have access to this critical infrastructure. In addition, broadband service providers are required to submit updated service territory data annually. DHCD also has published a project dashboard for residents and stakeholders to stay informed of broadband deployment projects in their area.”

“In 2021 it was the first year Virginia collected its own broadband information from providers and then mapped that information at an address level,” said Brandon Herndon, Director of the Center for Geospatial Information Technology.

It’s similar to the “FCC Broadband Collection Map,” but there are some differences.

According to Herndon, “The Commonwealth of Virginia maintains a publicly available address database that is updated frequently by Geospatial Information Systems (GIS) experts throughout the Commonwealth. Not every state has this information, therefore the FCC has generated a nationwide Fabric database for all broadband serviceable locations. The FCC Fabric is location-based, which differs from Virginia’s address-based data.”

To give more context, the Commonwealth Connections Broadband information is displayed by census blocks, instead of individual addresses, because some residents of Virginia did not want to give out their personal information.

In a statement from the Census Bureau:

Census blocks are defined as “statistical areas bounded by visible features, such as streets, roads, streams, and railroad tracks, and by nonvisible boundaries, such as selected property lines and city, township, school district, and county limits and short line-of-sight extensions of streets and roads.”

US Census Bureau

Herndon explains the tool will allow broadband providers and government representatives to expand access for all Virginians.

“Just recently President Biden passed the infrastructure job Act. A portion of that act is called bead funding. It’s 43 billion dollars earmarked for the states to use to improve their broadband infrastructure and coverage in each state. the portion of that 43 billion dollars that each state gets is dependent on how many un-served locations are available in that state,” said Herndon.

So, the more underserved locations, the more funding Virginia gets.

That’s why Herndon stresses that residents to speak up if they do not have internet access. You can do that by challenging the FCC’s data about your service in your area.