Bipartisan collaboration plays an essential role in the economic health and growth of the commonwealth and has proved critical in fueling the state’s record low unemployment rate and booming economic growth.
But for crucial growth to continue, legislators must also look beyond their own districts, as we have. For one of us, Del. Nick Rush, whose district spans the New River Valley in Southwest Virginia, this means a vote in favor of an incentive package for Amazon that will bring thousands of jobs to Virginia. Though these jobs will not be in his district, they will benefit the commonwealth as a whole. For the other, Del. Mark Sickles, who represents Fairfax County, it means support for broadband grant programs for unserved regions of Virginia.
Much like the impact of the Amazon expansion in Northern Virginia, broadband deployment stands to be an economic game-changer for rural and suburban communities, and the commonwealth must continue aggressively investing in bridging the digital divide.
The economic implications of broadband expansion, while not necessarily as high profile as a new corporate headquarters, are staggering. According to the U.S. Agriculture Department, if farmers could use precision agriculture technologies, agricultural output would increase by 16 percent nationwide. At $70 billion a year, agriculture is Virginia’s largest economic sector by a mile. Even if only half that amount came to be, an 8 percent increase in agriculture output in Virginia would still infuse billions of dollars into Virginia’s economy.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Amazon took a broader look at the impact of broadband availability on each state’s economy. For Virginia, the results were stunning: a more than $2 billion increase in annual sales, 9,415 new jobs and $452 million in new annual wages.
The return on investment is clear. State support to build out broadband infrastructure is repaid many times over by any measure of economic outcomes. But access to the Internet goes beyond dollars and cents. This is an equity issue. Today’s students need access to the learning tools the Internet offers whether they live in Floyd or Fairfax. Likewise, innovations in telehealth are unavailable to patients without high-speed Internet at home. Lives can be drastically improved and even saved by increasing broadband access.
Broadband is increasingly comparable with roads or electricity — commerce and communication depend on them. Imagine how any modern community would fare without access to roads or electricity. Businesses would suffer. Homes would be sold at lower cost. Young people would move away. These are the challenges facing Virginia’s rural communities, where there are an estimated 600,000 people without access to the Internet.
As members of the House Appropriations Committee, we took action to address the digital divide in the budget this year, increasing the state broadband grant program fivefold from a $4 million to $19 million. This $19 million grant round closed in early September and received more than $43 million in requests from 55 different localities. This is the fourth year in a row the program has received more than double in requests than available funds.
Virginians, whether served or not, recognize the importance of universal broadband coverage. That is why we pledge to support increased broadband funding ahead of the 2020 General Assembly session. We can’t take our foot off the gas until all 600,000 unserved Virginians are connected.
Mark Sickles, a Democrat, and Nick Rush, a Republican, serve in the Virginia House of Delegates.