By Callie Hietala
U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Alexandria, sat down with community leaders and elected officials from Henry and Patrick counties and the City of Martinsville during an August 24 stop in Martinsville, to discuss how the area can benefit from the Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act.
Authored by Warner, the bill that passed in the Senate earlier this month and now awaits passage by the House, allocates billions of dollars toward improving roads, bridges, and other critical infrastructure needs.
The discussion, held at P&HCC’s Manufacturing, Engineering, and Technology Complex, primarily focused on broadband infrastructure in the region. The bill includes $65 billion for broadband expansion, including a minimum of $100 million to expand and improve broadband access in Virginia.
Warner spoke for about an hour with a group of 18 people, including representatives from Martinsville, Patrick and Henry counties, the Harvest Foundation, Henry County Schools, Martinsville City Schools, and Appalachian Power, to talk specifically about broadband.
“COVID showed that high-speed internet connectivity is now an economic necessity. It is no longer a nice-to have,” Warner said, and noted that the infrastructure bill has $65 billion in it for broadband –
“$40 billion of it for coverage and $14 billion for affordability, because we know that it’s not just a case of getting the broadband to someone, you’ve got to be able to afford it.”
Internet service in the Henry and Patrick counties is varied. Clyde DeLoach, vice chairman of the Patrick County Board of Supervisors, said.
“Patrick County is best described as a mess. We have been trying aggressively to get broadband, in partnership with RiverStreet,” but the county is having trouble coming up with a $4.3 million match, DeLoach said. “We didn’t know what to do. We pledged a million and just sort of left it there for them to do with it as they will.”
The City of Martinsville, on the other hand, already has MiNet in place, which provides Wi-Fi coverage for every area in the city, said Martinsville’s Vice Mayor Jennifer Bowles.
Henry County Deputy Administrator Dale Wagoner said Henry County has been “hindered up to this point by the maps. Because when you look at the maps, Henry County looks like it has really good broadband, compared to our neighbors,” though there are underserved areas in the county.
“In the last several months, since some of the barriers with the maps have been taken down, we have dipped our toes into every opportunity we could,” Wagoner said.
Michael Armbrister, executive director of the West Piedmont Planning District Commission, left the meeting feeling positive.
“There’s a lot of funding available, a lot more funding coming,” he said. “Our localities have a limited amount of time to figure out the best use for this funding for broadband, for water and sewer infrastructure. Broadband deadline for (Virginia Telecommunications Initiative) for state funding is September 14, so we have several of our counties working together with other partners, like AEP, to put together a plan, put together an application to secure the funding in hopes of universal coverage, or as close to universal coverage as possible. The goal is to connect everybody who wants connection.”
“The key thing that I heard the senator say that I appreciate is our localities have (American Rescue Plan Act) funding. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. They want to use it for the biggest bang for their buck. There is a big match for VATI funds.
“They’re proposing to use a big chunk of their ARPA funding for that match, but if the federal infrastructure bill has broadband funding in it that they can then leverage, it would be great if the senator and other folks in congress can make it so that the (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) funding, the federal broadband funding, can come in and they can pull their ARPA funds out and use that for water and sewer or other needs and be able to fill that gap with the federal broadband money. So that’s exciting to hear because we’re talking about millions and millions of dollars, so it’s hard for a lot of our localities, especially more rural localities like Patrick County to put in millions of dollars. So that we feel more confident moving forward with broadband applications,” he said.
Wagoner said he also was excited about the new funding.
“There’s a pot of money we can now draw from to get these broadband projects under way. Up to this point, money has always been the issue and the hindrance to broadband,” he said. “It just was not profitable for private entities to build out those networks because they’d never recoup the cost. This massive influx of state and federal money will give us the opportunity to make it cost-effective for these private entities to deliver those services.”
“Compared to all of our neighbors, we have really good broadband,” he said. This new funding will allow Henry County to move to the next phase, expanding coverage to smaller businesses and residents and out into the more rural parts of the county.
Warner said that, with this new plan, “there should be no community in Virginia that will not have the funding, to make sure your people get affordable, high-speed internet.”