With an infusion of funding from the American Rescue Plan and the shortcomings today’s broadband networks thrown into high relief during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) said Friday that counties like Loudoun have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make major progress on internet access.
“If we miss this window—God willing we’re never going to have another COVID— you’re never going to have this kind of one-time infusion of capital, and you’ve just got to decide what that priority is,” Warner said at a roundtable discussion in the Loudoun County Public Schools administration building Friday, May 21.
Warner was joined by Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-VA-10), Federal Communications Commission Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, local leaders and members of the Loudoun Broadband Alliance. The discussion centered in large part around the massive infusion of federal funding for broadband access and affordability: $17 billion in theAmericanRescuePlan, $10 billion in the Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund created by the American Rescue Plan that can be used to expand high-speed internet access, and $7 billion towardsbroadband in the Bipartisan-Bicameral Omnibus COVID Relief Deal passed in December.
“We’ve still got so much to do, and I’m really hopeful that when we talk about infrastructure, we’re not just talking about roads and bridges, we’re talking about broadband,” Wexton said.
“I think this pandemic has proven to all of us that broadband is no longer nice-to-have, it’s need-to-have for everyone, everywhere,” Rosenworcel said.
She likened expanding broadband to every home to the rural electrification project begun in the 1930s to bring electricity to every home.
“We figured out a way to do it. It’s not so audacious to believe that we can do that again here. We just have to,” Rosenworcel said. “We have this extraordinary moment, where there’s more activity on this subject than ever before in my professional life, there’s more money than ever before in my professional life.”
The comparison is particularly relevant here—Loudoun has already begun a project to expand broadband into the county’s rural reaches, in part through a partnership that would run fiber optic cable along electric company utility poles.
“I hope when we look back on this last year a half, and all of its trials and tribulations, we see we actually did something big,” she said.
Some attendees pointed out there are barriers remaining despite the infusion of cash—whether that be difficult geography, regulatory red tape, inaccurate service maps, a shortage of trained technicians, or just incumbent internet service providers standing in the way.
Representatives from the Loudoun Broadband Alliance pushed to make the most of the funding.
“We have to look at it long-term,” said Vice President Kevin Noll. “If we spend our money well, it will go away. If we don’t, we will revisit this problem again in about 10 years.”
In particular, he said, the county should not rely on wireless connectivity for rural areas.
“Wireless has a cyclic process. Every five years or so, there is an upgrade that is required to keep up,” Noll said. “But we can’t ignore wireless. We can’t have one without the other. I’m not going to sit here and say we have to do fiber to every home, because I’m not sure that’s feasible, but we really have to think long term.”
It was Rosenworcel’s first public, in-person event since the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.