By Brandon Martin
The American Rescue Plan signed by President Joe Biden has already provided more than $90 million in direct deposits to families around the country and around Virginia, according to U.S. Sen. Mark Warner.
“This package is large. It touches a whole variety of subjects,” Warner, D-Alexandria, said at a recent press conference. Expanding broadband and funding for state and local governments were among the two biggest sections he discussed.
Of the approximate $6.9 billion received in aid, Warner said about $4 billion will go to the state government while another $3 billion is disbursed directly to local governments.
“That’s important because in the previous legislation, it only went directly to localities in an area like Fairfax that was quite large,” Warner said. “This $3 billion goes to every city, every county, and even town governments will be receiving dollars.”
Through the plan, the Commonwealth of Virginia received more than $6.9 billion in state and local government funding; $4.5 million in emergency rental assistance; $3 billion in education funding; $1.4 billion in rural transit funding; and $1.5 billion in urban transit funding. Additionally, more than 3,611,000 households in Virginia either have or will receive individual stimulus checks.
Warner said $7 billion will go towards making broadband affordable.
“I think if there is one thing that we’ve learned in the last year of COVID, it is that high-speed internet connectivity, broadband, is an economic necessity and not a nice to have,” Warner said. “Unfortunately for Virginia, we have over 700,000 Virginians that don’t have access to broadband. In rural communities but also in suburban communities. That doesn’t even count the number of Virginians that even if they got access, that broadband is not affordable enough.”
To help with this equity gap, Warner said the federal government made “the largest single” investment in broadband expansion “in our country’s history,” with a total of $17 billion approved for broadband expansion.
Approximately $10 billion of those funds are dedicated to state and local governments “with a great deal of flexibility on how we can provide that as an expanded broadband service,” Warner said, and added that those decisions are best left at the local level.
“As we’ve seen in Southwest Virginia, the best solution may be satellite connection. In the Southside, there may be areas where wireless cell phone connections are a way forward in broadband,” Warner said. “In many parts, making sure you have fiber straight to the house. We want to give that flexibility, but we also want to make sure we expand the coverage range.”
Warner said the challenges to local broadband lie in the profit margin for providing services.
“The challenge of getting broadband deployed has been the face that in many jurisdictions, the local incumbent provider particularly in rural areas, has no incentive to provide that expanded coverage,” Warner said. “But at the same time, doesn’t want a competitor to come in and provide that expanded coverage because at some point down the line it may be worthwhile to expand that coverage.”
According to Warner, the need to expand broadband requires urgency.
“If we have had that approach in the 1930s about rural electrification then it probably would have been 50 years before American households got electricity,” Warner said. “We can’t have that same model take place in broadband.”
The solution, he said, will be multi-faceted.
“It will take some initial investment,” he said. “Some of that will be federal dollars, some of that needs to be local dollars. Some of that needs to be local providers that will long term see an economic benefit in revenue that comes in providing that service.”