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Opinion: Appalachia needs smart Internet policies

By Geary Weir

Executive Director

Webster County Economic Development Authority

The Internet was supposed to level the playing field for geography.  You would be able to work from anywhere as long you had access to a quality high-speed connection.  The promises were boundless as the most rural parts of West Virginia would be opened to global markets.  The great mountains of Appalachia would no longer be a hindrance to growth – but instead serve as a calling card to those who wanted to get away from it all and still be able to be connected at the same time.

 

But the reality is that the only way for the promised land of connectivity to become reality is for even the most rural parts of Appalachia to be connected to broadband Internet at the same levels as downtown Washington D.C.  Today, we have an opportunity to fully deliver on the Internet’s possibilities for connecting Appalachia to the rest of the world. But we can only accomplish this if they get things right in Washington, D.C.

 

The backbone of broadband Internet is still an actual infrastructure of wires, cables and fibers – running along poles.  With each new development that finds the Internet moving faster and faster comes the need for upgrades to that infrastructure and supporting equipment.  And our mountains make that more difficult.

 

Washington has also made the process more difficult in that providers do not have predictability in knowing what the future may hold with constantly changing regulations by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) being initiated and then sometimes removed.

 

In 2015, under the Obama Administration, the FCC placed broadband under a category of utility regulations that were created in the 1930s. This slowed development in rural areas as providers figured out how to work with the new regulations. Then, under the Trump Administration, the FCC decided to remove the same 1930s-era regulations to move the development of broadband back to how it was naturally coming along before 2015.

 

This back-and-forth action by the FCC has created long-term uncertainty for broadband internet providers.  Understanding that these same utility-style regulations can come back into play after the next election, investment may continue to be slow because the size of the infrastructure to be developed means projcets can take years to complete – well beyond one administration to another.

 

The regulations were put in place in 2015 to keep the Internet open to those using it.  The argument by some of the largest users (including the video streaming and pornography industries) was that without the utility-style regulation, the Internet would become slower.  In fact, the Internet got faster and faster while more infrastructure was developed leading up until that point.

 

The solution is for Congress to step in with bipartisan legislation that will solve the issue once and for all.  Providers have publicly stated they support an open internet – so all sides can agree that it should be written into law.  By doing so, it will protect users and consumers while giving stability to providers so they can invest in bringing broadband internet to rural areas like West Virginia.

 

Our great state is beyond the precipice of a new economy.  Without smart policies, broadband will become like highways and other infrastructure that came too little and too late to Appalachia.  And then, not only will the promise of the Internet not be fulfilled – but we will continue to see yet another generation leave our wonderful state to live in places where they can be connected.

 

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