BRISTOL, Virginia – Southwest Virginia could be one of 18 rural US areas designated as “tech hubs” for growing critical semiconductor businesses and mining the rare earth minerals needed for their production.
Virginia US Senator Mark Warner met with lawmakers, education, business and economic development officials at Bristol Railway Station on Friday to discuss the implications of the one-time $ 250 billion funding under the Senate-approved US Innovation Act and competition.
While Republican and Democratic senators have teamed up on Senate law priorities, Warner said he was waiting for the House of Representatives’ pending version. Despite the resolution of the two bills, he hopes that they will be ready for President Biden’s signature as early as August.
The law combats business and industrial competition with the People’s Republic of China in technology areas such as the global supply of semiconductor chips, Internet and other items. Warner said about $ 52 billion of Senate legislation would help boost domestic semiconductor production by funding seven to ten new U.S. facilities.
While US dominance in the semiconductor market has fallen well below its high of 33% of world production, Warner said production in the People’s Republic of China has increased. Taiwan – the Republic of China – also produces a large portion of the world’s semiconductor supplies.
Warner said the PRC’s demands that Taiwan submit to its control could jeopardize world access to chip production.
Warner also warned of mainland China’s dominance in mining rare earths, which are used in the manufacture of several devices such as smartphones, electric motors and semiconductors.
Warner said the US-China economy had become a “sacred cow moment” with the pandemic as national leaders discovered how dependent the country was on China for drugs, medical care and rare earth minerals.
“My beef belongs to the Chinese Communist Party, not the Chinese people,” added Warner.
The remaining roughly $ 200 billion, although approved in the federal budget, has not been allocated to specific items, Warner said, citing five priorities that need to be considered:
• Inclusion of Southwest Virginia under 18 proposed rural technology centers
• Bringing Southwest Virginia “into play” for semiconductor manufacturing
• Developing the ability to supply rare earth minerals
• One-time catalyst funding for technology start-ups
• Legislation and local planning to improve broadband service
Warner said Southwest Virginia’s coal mining experience could be an answer to the search for indigenous rare earth metals.
“There is more expertise in this room than any committee I sit on,” said Warner. “You have to raise me so I can raise the senators.”
Mike Quillen, chairman of Region One GoVirginia Economic Development District, said mining expertise is not an issue in the region, but the cost of mining rare earth minerals is.
“We’re going to need some help,” said Quillen. “It is expensive.”
“We have to do more than just talk,” said Warner, emphasizing that China could harm the US economy if it decides to restrict access to its rare earth production. “When Americans have to pay an extra cent or two to have secure care, it’s worth it … the cheapest price may not always be the safest.”
Getting existing and potential semiconductor manufacturers to seek jobs in Southwest Virginia presents its own challenges, Warner said.
Regarding the InvestSWVA Economic Development Partnership’s 2020 inventory of potential data center locations, Warner said the region has two things that are needed for semiconductor manufacturing – lots of water in disused underground mining locations and lots of land.
Warner warned the panel that a site-based attempt to achieve technology center status should be avoided in favor of a consortium of sites, colleges and universities.
He referred to the area’s planning districts, community colleges, UVA Wise, Emory & Henry College, and even Virginia Tech as partners in the effort.
Expanding high-speed Internet in Southwest Virginia is also critical to turning Southwest Virginia into a technology hub, and Warner said Virginia and the communities need to work on a comprehensive plan for that.
He suggested that the state’s 133 counties and cities should work within two years to expand the availability of their high-speed Internet services.
Warner accused the US of losing its high-tech dominance and influence in setting international standards for technologies like 5G wireless.
He cited the growing Chinese dominance in cellular technology and even the sale of commercial drones.
“The West that was capitalized got lazy,” Warner said. “We have to do that with the rest of the world. China has figured out how to set the standards. “