By Jim Workman
West Virginia Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — While West Virginia has lagged behind other states in broadband and cell coverage and speeds, state legislators and industry officials are working on a remedy that may bring better service to Mountain State citizens and businesses.
House Bill 4357, the West Virginia Small Wireless Facilities Deployment Act, passed the House Finance committee Friday. It moves to the House floor with the committee’s recommendation for approval.
According to a Federal Communications Commission report, West Virginia ranks 49 of 56 states and U.S. territories in broadband speeds. FCC data shows the best wireless speeds in West Virginia are available in a North Central corridor between Clarksburg and Fairmont. Much of the rest of the state, save larger municipalities in the Kanawha Valley and the Eastern Panhandle, are far below that standard.
Andy Feeney, AT&T’s regional vice president of external and legislative affairs testified to the committee. He said AT&T is interested in expanding its network and bringing faster, better wireless service and better mobile broadband to West Virginia.
The bill is needed to give AT& some certainty to invest upwards of $50 million over the next five years in small wireless facilities, he explained.
“If we can get specifications, applications and permitting streamlined, it will help us have that certainty to commit that kind of investment in West Virginia and to its citizens,” Feeney said.
The bill would affect all providers, not just AT&T.
Legal counsel for Verizon, Will Swann of Kay, Casto & Chaney, PLLC, also spoke in favor of the bill following the committee meeting.
“Verizon wholeheartedly supports small cell deployment across West Virginia,” he said. “It would improve the network, access in rural communities and large cities alike.
“We all know that our infrastructure needs work,” Swann added. “This is a small step in improving it.”
Feeney answered committee concerns about the bill only further benefiting larger municipalities.
“More than half of the small cells will be in unincorporated areas,” Feeney said. “We are going to be augmenting the existing tower network that we currently have today. It’s all part of a way to keep up with the amount of traffic and data that is growing on our network every day.”
West Virginia is behind other states in utilizing small cell technology. Feeney stated currently in West Virginia, “There are none.”
“Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, North Carolina, they all have this legislation in place to streamline the process,” Feeney explained. “They’re getting the investment and the better coverage.”
Some rural communities in West Virginia need targeted areas, perhaps downtown, Feeney said.
The small cell facilities would boost coverage of about a 300- to 800-feet range, depending on terrain, Feeney said. Up to five or eight small cells might be placed strategically around an area, resembling an octagon, to enhance spotty coverage.
Delegate Rick Moye, D-Raleigh expressed his concerns about the possibility of blocking commercial signage and impeding on right-of-ways of local businesses.
“I’m concerned about placement,” Moye said.
Permitting still must go through municipal and county authorities however, Feeney and Sammy Gray, First Energy’s director of state affairs for West Virginia, explained to the committee.
Existing poles and towers would be used too, eliminating need for new construction.
The bill adequately protects those provisions, they stated.
“We would stick within our regulations,” Gray said.
Delegate Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, asked Gray if he felt certain with the language in the bill that utility companies and wireless utilities would continue to work without conflicts.
“Absolutely,” Gray answered. “The bill clarifies that. It will continue as it has.”