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Opinion: Five-City Fiber Ring in Va. Will Transform Region

The Southside Network Authority in Virginia has broken ground for a new fiber ring that will connect five cities in the state. The network will even be linked to subsea fiber-optic lines in the Atlantic.

(TNS) — When officials of the Southside Network Authority gathered early in April to break ground on a 119-mile fiber ring, they were taking a symbolic step toward a better future for all of South Hampton Roads.

That event marked the latest step toward transforming the region into a hub of ultra-high-speed, reliable Internet available to all. As officials said at the groundbreaking ceremony, Hampton Roads will add being a gateway for digital information to its status as a major port for moving products and people.

The fiber ring will connect the cities of Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Chesapeake, Portsmouth and Suffolk. Beyond that, it will connect with the major transatlantic subsea fiber optic cables that come ashore in Virginia Beach, offering high-capacity, high-speed connections to Europe and Africa.

The groundbreaking also marked a triumph of foresight and regional cooperation. It was the culmination of vision and effort, dating back more than six years to an earlier proposal by Ben Davenport, then a Virginia Beach city councilman, with help from Norfolk Councilwoman Andria McClellan. The Southside Network Authority was created by the five cities in 2019.

The project moved closer to reality in March, when the cities pledged to provide $5 million each to build the fiber ring. The authority is negotiating with Global Technical Systems of Virginia to manage the fiber ring in a public-private partnership.

The aim is to make high-speed broadband available in an affordable way to everyone in the region. The benefits should be profound and far-reaching.

Economic development is high on the list. Wide access to the highest Internet speeds on the East Coast should make it easier for the region to attract new businesses and keep those that are here flourishing. Businesses that deal in financial services, data transfer and storage and cybersecurity are among those that rely on high-speed broadband. The broadband access here should also be a draw to highly skilled workers who work remotely and can choose where they live, a trend that’s been accelerated by COVID.

The region’s extensive medical and health-care institutions should benefit. Today’s medicine and research rely on analyzing data to improve care and make it more affordable. Readily available high-speed broadband will also enhance the work of the region’s universities and community colleges and expand possibilities for schools at all levels.

Increased availability of high-capacity broadband should also be a boon to the region’s military installations, helping them run their bases more efficiently.

Connecting the cities will make it easier for them to take advantage of the latest technologies and to coordinate efforts. The possibilities are great — emergency response, traffic control, combating flooding problems and sea-level rise, even dealing with autonomous vehicles. There are many possibilities most of us haven’t yet imagined.

One of the best things about the project is that it doesn’t leave anyone out. The cities won’t be offering broadband access themselves, but they will offer the opportunity for providers to plug into the ring. That should help make broadband access available and affordable everywhere, helping to bridge the so-called digital divide.

These days, Internet access is essential for so many things — schoolwork, job hunting, government programs, health and mental health care. Those who have it take it for granted, but those in poor and minority communities who lack it suffer. Census data show that in most of the Southside cities, Black households are 10-15% less likely than white ones to have broadband access. Making broadband available to all will give many people more equal opportunities for education, jobs and a good start in life.

Long-range plans are for the Southside ring to expand west to the cities of Franklin and Smithfield as well as Southampton, Isle of Wight and Surry counties.

Who knows what could happen? One thing seems certain: Working together on this visionary fiber ring places the cities of South Hampton Roads in a stronger position heading into that future.

©2022 The Virginian-Pilot. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.