LEBANON — The Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority is putting a half-million dollars into building on a pilot space-based broadband internet service in Southwest Virginia.
Officials with the VCEDA and the Appalachian Council for Innovation joined local legislative representatives to announce the $500,000 grant Thursday, which will build on Space X’s Starlink satellite broadband service.
In December, Wise County Public Schools became the first Virginia school division to use the Starlink service, providing free high-speed internet to students either without any broadband access or with slow-speed cable, satellite or cellular service.
State Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Woodbridge, worked with Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Abingdon, and other Southwest Virginia legislators on including funding for the grant under education and telehealth funding in the current state budget.
“I’m pleased to see this budget amendment come to fruition,” McPike said during Thursday’s announcement. “In 2020, the digital divide highlighted how critical the internet is to success in every part of Virginia. This is an important first step to bridging that divide, and I look forward to continue partnering with Southwest Virginians on these much-needed investments.”
“Given the topography and remoteness of parts of our region, innovative approaches to connecting that last mile are essential,” said Pillion, who has advocated for broadband expansion with other legislators through the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative and state budget items.
“That’s why I supported the Starlink pilot specifically for the coalfields and worked with Sen. McPike and a bipartisan coalition of negotiators to ensure it remained part of the state budget,” Pillion said. “We’re excited for this game-changing project right here in Southwest Virginia.”
While Wise County’s school division started with 45 students using the service and is planning to expand that number, ACI President Donald Purdie said his group has also signed a contract with Space X to serve another 300 households in the region by the end of September.
ACI, a coalition of businesses working on education, business and technology issues facing the region, covers the three westernmost planning districts in Virginia. Purdie said the first round of households is being selected based on a combination of geographic coverage by the Starlink system and by school divisions helping determine households with the greatest need in those areas.
“This is student-driven,” Purdie said. “We’ve selected our first group of cells, or coverage areas, and we’re not trying to compete with terrestrial service providers. We’re looking at households where it’s not feasible to extend fiber service.”
The first 300 households under the VCEDA grant will be in Wise, Dickenson and Tazewell counties, Purdie said. Washington County officials have approached ACI about participating in the next round, he said, and ACI is looking at Lee and Buchanan counties for another round of 300 household connections by the end of March 2022.
VCEDA Executive Director/General Counsel Jonathan Belcher said the grant reflects the importance of broadband in all areas of the region’s development.
“Expanding access to technology in our region is a critical component of economic development,” said Belcher, “especially in this time when education, tele-working, health care delivery and more have been utilizing technology connectivity through the internet as a primary means for communication and service delivery.”
The VCEDA grant announcement follows news last week from Gov. Ralph Northam that General Assembly members in both houses’ appropriation committees agreed to allocate another $300 million in federal American Rescue Plan funding to extend “last-mile” broadband connections to all unserved rural households by 2024. A vote on that and other ARP spending will happen during the Assembly’s Aug. 2 special session.
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