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FROM THE CHAMBER: High-speed internet is crucial need for rural Virginia

FROM THE CHAMBER: High-speed internet is crucial need for rural Virginia

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In the 1930s, nine of every 10 households in the United Sates did not have electricity. To bring this “modern necessity” to more homes, the electric cooperatives were established through federal legislation.

Today, the internet is just as necessary as electricity. We use the internet to communicate and to share information. Students need it to do their homework. Doctors and surgeons share critical medical records. Fire, police, and emergency services use it for redundancies in communication and for investigative tools, and small businesses need it to manage their books and report their payroll taxes.

The internet is a fabric that binds and connects our nation, yet nearly half of rural Virginians lack access to high-speed internet. In Northern Virginia, 97 percent of residents have access to high-speed internet.

Virginia’s major metropolitan areas, such as Northern Virginia, have had significant job growth since 2008. Internet access contributes to that success and provides a competitive advantage to those areas that have it.

According to the FCC’s 2016 Broadband Progress Report, our region has nearly 20,000 people with no access to broadband. This does not include businesses or developments for future business, because it only relates to residents.

Thousands of citizens who reside in different spots all throughout our region do not have broadband. For example, in Caroline County, 36 percent of the population lacks internet access.

Earlier this year, the General Assembly raised the amount of money committed to improving rural broadband from $2 million to $8 million. We applaud Virginia’s effort to invest in broadband, but when compared to others states—such as Minnesota, which recently announced over $30 million to bring broadband to its rural areas—it doesn’t appear to be a top priority.

In an area ranked as the worst traffic hotspot in America, broadband could provide more people the opportunity to telework and take cars off the road. It could also encourage businesses and government agencies to move to the Fredericksburg area. An increase in access could positively impact our economic prosperity as well as our quality of life.

We need to increase dialogue about bringing Virginia and our region into the 21st century. A little over a hundred years after giving electric cooperatives the ability to deliver a need to families, we are presented with a similar conundrum: allow private industry to provide the service, or allow cooperatives and public utilities to meet the public’s need.

The chamber will keep this issue on the forefront of our legislative positions and we will continue to advocate for broadband access for all.

If you’d like to know more, then save the date: We are hosting a Community Conversation event about rural broadband at the Howell Branch of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library on Sept. 19. Congressman Rob Wittman, who leads a rural broadband taskforce, and Courtney Dozier, deputy chief broadband advisor for Gov. Ralph Northam, will lead a discussion about solutions to this critical problem.

The Fredericksburg Regional Chamber means business. Join us.

Susan Spears is president of the Fredericksburg Regional Chamber of Commerce.

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