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OPINION: There's the urgency we've been looking for on broadband

OPINION: There's the urgency we've been looking for on broadband

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Enter the home of a student attending school virtually, or a parent juggling a job and child care. Visit a small business that cannot engage with customers online. Talk to a farmer who is unable to use the latest technology to care for crops. Meet a patient driving long distances to receive care because telehealth is out of the question.

Watch as Virginians reset wireless hot spots 10 times a day, rejoin Zoom meetings after missing a critical exchange or can’t pay a bill because of $70 in data overage fees.

Across the commonwealth, COVID-19 has accelerated the need for reliable broadband internet access. In underserved households, this issue cannot wait. Last Wednesday, Gov. Ralph Northam announced the commonwealth would allocate $30 million in CARES Act funding toward fast-tracking broadband projects. There’s the urgency we’ve been looking for.

Localities can now apply for the funding, which must support projects that can be completed by the end of this year. CARES Act dollars have to be used by the end of December, and we previously have called for greater flexibility within the tight federal relief timeline.

We also recognize that broadband projects often carry complexities that add time to the implementation process. But the severity of the internet access issue must not fall victim to excuses.

In a September report, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia estimated that at least 200,000 K-12 students and 60,000 college students in the commonwealth lack access to a reliable high-speed connection at home. Families also are resorting to traveling to friends’ or relatives’ homes to complete basic online tasks amid a pandemic.

Examples of eligible broadband projects outlined by the governor’s office include:

Infrastructure meeting the minimum 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload standard, with “limited overbuilding of existing infrastructure.”

Service costs for passings or property facing high individual price tags of up to $10,000 per connection. This might include long driveways, private roads or areas near rail or highway crossings.

“Cellular transmission equipment” for areas without cell service.

“High-speed internet is essential for students to connect to education, business to connect to the wider world, and citizens to connect to work,” Northam said in a statement. “The COVID-19 pandemic has made this even more clear, as so much of our lives have moved to virtual platforms.”

The words are there. Now, let’s see the urgency in action — the state, localities, internet service providers and other partners working together to deliver change.

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