By RUSTY MARKS
The State Journal
BUCKHANNON, W.Va. — A year ago, according to West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council Chairman Robert Hinton, the Mountain State had no state funding, little federal funding and no comprehensive plan to bring high-speed internet service to tens of thousands of state residents who were unable to log on to the internet.
State lawmakers had established the broadband council, but its authority was limited. State officials knew that internet service was lacking in the state and that even those who had access to the internet often experienced slow speeds and substandard service. But officials didn’t know how many were without services or how slow existing services were.
“We still have people who have dial-up (service),” said U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va. “We need to know who’s served, who’s underserved, who’s not served and at what price (bringing service will come).”
On a federal level, Capito and fellow lawmakers are pursuing the Capito Connect Plan, a three-part plan that involves getting the word out about the importance of internet availability to the state’s residents and economy, promoting cooperation between government and the private sector to extend service and encouraging technological innovation to help promote economic growth.
Since unveiling the plan, Capito has helped form and lead the Senate Broadband Caucus, a group of five senators from rural states who all face similar connectivity problems. The caucus includes Capito; Sen. Angus King, I-Maine; Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota; Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota and Sen. John Boozeman, R-Arkansas.
“We all have the same issues,” said Capito, including the affordability of getting internet service to residents in remote areas.
In July, Capito helped push an agriculture appropriations bill that includes $30 million in grant money to extend broadband access. Capito also introduced the Gigabit Opportunity Act, a tax incentive bill that would “target investments to areas poised for growth, streamline patchwork regulations, eliminate barriers to investment, and create new incentives for (service) providers,” according to Capito’s staff.
Capito is also working with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, on the Broadband Connections for Rural Opportunities Program Act, which would make grant funding available for rural broadband expansion in high-need areas through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Capito said she is also working with federal FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and other FCC officials to emphasize the importance of internet service to rural areas. Pai has twice visited West Virginia.
On the state level, the state Legislature passed House Bill 3093, the Mountain State’s first comprehensive legislation intended to address the broadband connectivity problem. The legislation greatly expands the authority of the broadband council to oversee broadband expansion in the state, and provides or internet co-ops to allow businesses, citizens or municipalities to band together to pursue federal grant money for internet. The state also now has a loan guarantee program to encourage service providers to go into underserved areas.
“We’re making headway,” said Hinton. “We’re doing the right things. It’s like a full-court press.”
State and federal efforts are beginning to pay off.
The broadband council is building a good database of information on actual internet speeds experienced by Mountain State residents. Between the end of October and the end of November, More than 11,000 people in all 55 counties participated in internet speed tests to measure actual connectivity. Hinton said the results confirmed what officials already suspected: the majority of the state’s internet users are experiencing speeds of 10 Mbps or less.
Lawmakers have also agreed to use up to 10 percent of the state’s Community Development Block Grant funding for internet expansion. Officials from 12 counties have applied for funding.
Hinton also said the West Virginia Development Office will be asking for applications for $3.2 million in funding through the Appalachian Regional Commission for distressed counties. The funding may be used in Clay, Lincoln, McDowell, Mingo and Webster counties.
Hinton said the state is also working on pilot projects to extend internet service by piggybacking off of a wireless network set up to support the state’s interoperative emergengy radio system. Over the next year, state officials will see how the idea works in two state parks and in Greenbrier and Roane counties.
Hinton concedes the state has a way to go in revising regulations, encouraging investment and providing internet infrastructure. One of the state’s biggest problems remains the lack of a tier one internet provider, forcing the state’s internet providers to go to an out-of-state hub to access the internet.
“It’s like buying a product at a store or going to the manufacturer and buying a product right off the floor,” Hinton said. Establishing a tier one internet provider in the state could significantly reduce the cost of providing service, he said.
Still, Hinton said, “I would say we’re making really good progress.”
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