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$21.5M in stimulus funds headed to region
Grants to improve Internet access

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

By ELIZA WINSTON - Bulletin Staff Writer

A total of $21.5 million in stimulus funds will be used to expand broadband Internet infrastructure in Southside and Southwest Virginia, the area's lawmakers announced Monday.

U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Jim Webb joined U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello and White House Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra on a conference call Monday to announce the two grants.

Together, the grants will add more than 575 miles of high-speed Internet infrastructure in the regions, according to a news release. The funds are designed to "bridge the technological divide," boost economic growth and create jobs in rural areas, the release added.

The grants were awarded through the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and are funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

 The largest grant, awarded to the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Cooperative, is a $16 million infrastructure grant that will be used to add 465 miles of new fiber in the region. That will make it possible for 121 kindergarten through 12th-grade schools in southern Virginia to connect to an existing 800-mile high-speed network, Chopra said.

By improving connection speeds for the schools, the grant will allow students to take part in distance learning and virtual classroom opportunities, the release said.

A list of all the affected schools was not available Monday. However, Lawrence Strickling, administrator for NTIA, said that schools in Henry County and Martinsville are included.

The expanded fiber network also will make it possible for Internet service providers to offer service to more local customers at lower prices, Chopra said.

The second grant, awarded to the Virginia Tech Foundation, will provide $5.5 million to add 110 miles of fiberoptic network between Blacksburg and Bedford. The network will cross six Appalachian counties and will provide direct high-speed connections to Virginia Tech's main campus in Blacksburg and the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine in Roanoke.

The new broadband infrastructure also could help bring jobs to the region, Warner said.

"Building-out the broadband capacity in Southwest and Southside Virginia is a critical piece of our effort to expand economic and educational opportunities in rural parts of our state," he said. "This investment will create enormous educational opportunities for young people and open new markets to our existing businesses and entrepreneurs that will add to the long-term economic competitiveness of these communities."�

"There are areas in Virginia that can't expand economically even in good times," Webb said. "Broadband access would help those areas compete and attract jobs."�

U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Abingdon, also praised the announcement.

"These federal funds will provide many more residents in the Ninth Congressional District with access to high-speed Internet services," Boucher said in the release.

Warner said broadband access does not guarantee 21st century jobs but said that without it, companies will not consider hiring in or relocating to an area.

However, jobs created by outside companies are just one of the ways expanded broadband can help create jobs in the area, he said.

"This grant will create two separate paths for job creation: jobs for putting in broadband fiber, and then economic activity from having high-speed broadband in rural communities will attract jobs and companies," he said.

Perriello said the grant will help kids in the area as well as give companies a competitive advantage.

"This is an investment, not an expenditure," he said.


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