Access to broadband internet is argued to be a necessity now, and efforts are under way to give more Smyth County residents the opportunity to connect.

In December, the Smyth County Board of Supervisors gave its OK for county administration staff to pursue funding that would help bring high-speed internet access to a portion of eastern Smyth County.

County Administrator Michael Carter told the board that a demonstrated need exists for updated and expanded broadband service in the county and region. He noted that the Tobacco Commission has set aside funding for such projects. He asked for the authorization to file a pre-application for one of the loan/grants.

Ending the digital divide between more urban areas of the commonwealth and rural sections has long been a goal of the commission. In 2017, the commission set aside $10 million “to assist in constructing ‘last-mile’ broadband telecommunications infrastructure in un-served areas of the region.” The commission has already awarded $11 million for nine projects, but is preparing to award another $5 million for projects that partner local governments with qualified private sector broadband providers to provide new or expanded service to “last-mile” customers (end users).

Noting the requirement for a private-sector partner, Carter said, Comcast, which has been identified by the state as an acceptable partner and has operations in Smyth County, is willing and able to partner on the project.

A resolution adopted by the supervisors said that Comcast “has recently discussed its plans to rebuild parts of its system in the eastern end of Smyth County. The project will bring high-speed internet….”

Carter, who noted that the county has been working with the commission and state Sen. Bill Carrico, said, he hoped this project would serve as a starting point and then services could be expanded throughout the county.

The pre-applications will be reviewed later this month with full proposals due to the commission by March 1.

On the state level, Gov. Ralph Northam announced last month that the proposed budget he will present to the General Assembly “will feature major investments in the commonwealth’s support of broadband infrastructure, the first installment of a historic commitment to expanding access to all unserved Virginians.”

“Broadband internet is inarguably a necessity for participation in a 21st century economy, and many Virginians have been left without quality access for far too long,” said Northam. “By ending this disconnect, we can better attract and support business and entrepreneurship, educate all Virginia students, expand access to cost-saving telehealth services, and more. We have an opportunity to accelerate our progress on expanding access to quality broadband internet—this budget reflects the priority my administration will place on reaching this important goal.”

The governor’s proposal would increase funding for the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI), a program that incentivizes internet service providers to expand their service to Virginians that are unserved, to $50 million in Fiscal Year 2020. The funding would be a significant increase to the $4 million already appropriated on an annual basis. This state funding would be matched by local, federal and private funds, helping to connect tens of thousands Virginians.

The General Assembly will consider the governor’s budget.

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