SURRY COUNTY, Va. (WAVY) — As Virginia and the nation rely more heavily on the internet than ever before thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the digital divide is becoming more clear.
Many rural communities in Virginia are without high-speed internet — half a million Virginians are affected.
The General Assembly is set to pass “record investments” to expand broadband, and Dominion Energy is also investing in the infrastructure.
On Monday, Dominion announced it hopes to expand broadband access with three new pilot projects in partnership with internet service providers in Surry County, the Northern Neck and Botetourt County.
The projects would need to be approved by the State Corporation Commission, but could build nearly 300 miles of middle-mile fiber through a $29 million investment.
In Surry County, the Dominion project proposes installing 43 miles of middle-mile fiber infrastructure in partnership with Prince George Electric Cooperative (PGEC)’s Internet Service Provider subsidiary, RURALBAND.
“With so many Virginians working and learning from home due to COVID-19, access to reliable internet is an absolute necessity,” said Ed Baine, president of Dominion Energy Virginia. “We hope these partnerships are the first of many, and we’re optimistic about how much these efforts could help communities here in our home state.”
In a news release, Dominion said it’s not cost-effective for internet service providers to lay the fiber needed to bring broadband to rural areas with small populations.
“Dominion Energy is in a unique position to help bridge the digital gap. The company is installing new infrastructure as it moves forward with efforts to transform Virginia’s energy grid. In the pilots, Dominion Energy Virginia is leveraging this pathway value and enabling Internet Service Providers to create broadband access for currently unserved rural communities in Virginia,” Dominion wrote in a news release.
About 200,000 K-12 students and 60,000 college students in Virginia lack access to broadband at home, according to estimates from the State Council of Higher Education.
Estimates from Virginia officials peg the cost to get every Virginian connected to broadband at $300 million by 2028.
State lawmakers in the special session are considering helping that effort to get residents connected. Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposed budget includes $85 million to expand broadband over two years. The House and Senate indicate there could be agreement on the first year’s $50 million commitment.
Northam has also launched a new program to fast-track broadband projects. The program gives an additional $30 million in federal CARES Act funding, which needs to be spent before the end of 2020.
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