PALMYRA, Va.—Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam grew up on electric cooperative lines and lauds their record of “reliable and efficient energy service.” But at a historic church surrounded by woods in the state’s rural center, he recognized co-ops’ latest role: broadband provider to the underserved.
Co-ops “absolutely” have a role in his administration’s goal of connecting every Virginia resident to highspeed internet access, he said.
“To have the cooperation of the co-ops—we are all in this together—that’s the way we will move forward,” Northam said in an interview in rural Fluvanna County, where he traveled to announce a state broadband grant for Central Virginia Electric Cooperative.
“We want universal broadband, but every region has its own challenges,” he said. “A role co-ops have taken, by stepping up and using their [infrastructure], has really helped and has been part of the process to move forward. I commend the co-ops throughout Virginia.”
The grant to CVEC of $641,967 “will help connect 570 premises, including Lyles Baptist Church where we are today,” he told state, county and co-op officials and members gathered outside the redbrick edifice built in 1774.
Northam underscored the need for rural broadband to lift the state’s economy.
“If we’re going to have a business coming into Virginia, especially rural Virginia, if we’re going to help a business grow, there is no way we can do it without access to the internet,” he said. “Businesses are not going to come to regions of Virginia or this country when they don’t have access to broadband in the year 2019. It’s just that simple.”
CVEC’s board of directors, who attended the July 11 event, last year approved a $110 million investment to connect all 37,000 co-op members in parts of 14 counties by 2023.
“Rural people in Virginia are very patient,” said Gary Wood, CVEC CEO and president. “They’ve been waiting here to stream some congregation moments, and they’re going to have access to that pretty soon.”
The state grant will cover 25% of CVEC’s cost to build broadband in Fluvanna County and “open doors” to extend gigabit fiber —the fastest available connection—to neighboring counties, Wood said.
“Rural communities need broadband, and CVEC has made that commitment to us,” said Eric Dahl, administrator of Fluvanna County.
The grant is one of several won by co-ops across the state.
“We don’t have a better partner than our electric cooperatives,” said Evan Feinman, the governor’s chief broadband adviser. He updated the gathering on how 70,000 homes and businesses have been connected, including “hundreds” by electric co-ops, since Northam took office in 2018.
For many in the crowd, the excitement of broadband arriving will be akin to the first time a switch flipped electricity into their childhood homes.
Longtime CVEC member Joseph Stanley, 79, traveled 30 miles to hear the latest on the co-op’s broadband development. He said he hopes it soon comes to his Buckingham County home so he can stay connected to his sons who live near Richmond.
Stanley recalled how, as a child, his family home in Russell County initially lacked electricity and indoor bathrooms: “It was like a party every time we got a little more electricity turned on at our house.”
What will he do when he gets broadband? “Most of my partygoers have passed on,” Stanley said. “I’m going to have to invite a younger crowd.”
Cathy Cash is a staff writer at NRECA.