PALMYRA — Democratic gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe affirmed his support of Virginia electrical cooperatives and expanding rural broadband access during a Monday campaign stop in Fluvanna County.
McAuliffe, who received the Democratic nomination in June and was governor from 2014-2018, spoke with about a half-dozen co-op CEOs, and donned lineman gear to climb a training pole.
The meeting, held at the Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Electric Cooperative Training Center in Palmyra, was an opportunity for McAuliffe to learn about challenges facing the electrical co-operatives and brainstorm potential solutions. The facility, which opened in 2019, is used to train electrical line workers, most of whom go on to work for the co-ops.
McAuliffe said he always has been a supporter of electrical co-operatives, pointing to their willingness to extend electrical and broadband internet to rural communities that some larger providers might consider to be too expensive.
“In rural Virginia, we’ve got to fix broadband; we cannot get to where we need to go if we don’t have broadband access, be it for education, jobs or anything,” he said. “I’m committed to getting that done in the first two years, and President Joe Biden’s new money is really going to help us accomplish that.”
Last month, Gov. Ralph Northam announced a $700 million plan to achieve universal broadband accessibility across Virginia by 2024. The funding, which would come from the federal American Rescue Plan, is crucial for achieving this goal, McAuliffe said.
The funding is part of $4.3 billion Virginia received as part of the plan, which the state General Assembly began deciding how to spend in a special session that kicked off Monday.
McAuliffe said access to broadband in rural communities has become all the more important during the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced many workers and students to rely more heavily on the internet.
“I am passionate about this and have been for a long time, but I’m really passionate after COVID when you think that 14% of our students did not have access to broadband,” he said. “That is very unfair that children who have to do online learning because their schools were closed do not have the access to get the materials they need.”
During the roundtable discussion with the co-op leaders, John Hewa, president of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative, talked to McAuliffe about electrical vehicles. Describing the vehicles as a tremendous opportunity for sustainability, Hewa said they can be even more valuable to those in rural communities who do a lot of driving.
“It’s a very significant fuel savings, so there’s going to be a lot of pressure put on us to deliver on transportation,” Hewa said. “We have got to be careful because our infrastructure is aging and we need to keep it secure, but we have an opportunity to play a huge role in helping the commonwealth have adequate infrastructure.”
Circling back to the issue of broadband access and laying the needed fiber-optic cables, Central Virginia Electric Cooperative President and CEO Gary Wood talked about current impediments.
“There are requirements that all of the utilities make sure that they provide marking for underground before another utility wants to dig, but a couple weeks ago, we had 160 new services for broadband put in on Monday morning and 63 of them had not been marked,” Wood said. “We have some ideas for solutions, including absolving us of guilt if we haven’t gotten that mark because if [the other utility companies] are not showing up after that, we need a way to continue work.”
Several of the CEOs mentioned to McAuliffe that there is a need to continue to be flexible when setting utility rates in order to keep rural Virginians from subsidizing clean energy and infrastructure programs from which they don’t directly benefit.
Glenn Youngkin, McAuliffe’s Republican opponent, has not yet outlined a specific plan for rural broadband access. However, in a March interview with The Roanoke Times, Youngkin pointed to work Elon Musk’s SpaceX has done by launching satellites into orbit to test if they can deliver reliable high-speed internet to rural homes.
“I do think it’s humorous that we actually look to lay fiber when Elon Musk has solved this problem for us,” Youngkin told the newspaper. “We can get broadband access across Virginia, and it’ll be cheaper than anything a government can actually do.”
According to the article, Youngkin’s campaign didn’t answer questions as to whether he would put state funding toward satellite internet but he later told Fox News that Virginia “shouldn’t waste taxpayer money on outdated solutions for rural broadband.”
“The idea of spending billions of dollars of taxpayer money to dig trenches is a 20-year-old solution, when in fact the private sector is figuring out how to deliver low-orbit satellite technology today.”
McAuliffe and Youngkin will face off for the governor’s seat Nov. 2.