The availability and quality of broadband Internet is a contentious issue in Pocahontas County. Concerned that the county will be left behind in an age of Internet-based commerce, business leaders, community groups and private citizens have urged the county commission to take action to get better broadband service.
Officials from Frontier Communications, the sole Internet provider in most of Pocahontas County, say the company is doing everything it can to provide good service, but their efforts are hampered by the county’s remote location and rugged terrain. But is the county’s remote location to blame for its poor Internet service, or is it the Internet provider? What’s the situation in a neighboring rural county with different Internet providers?
Highland County, Virginia, is similar to Pocahontas County. The county is remote, sparsely populated, and bisected by rugged Appalachian ridgelines. But broadband service in “Little Switzerland” is much different than in Pocahontas County. A non-profit, customer-owned cooperative, Highland Telephone Cooperative (HTC), provides Internet service to most of Highland County, including Monterey. A private, family company, MGW, provides Internet service to portions of Highland County and Bath County.
Frontier (FTR on NASDAQ), is a behemoth compared to HTC and MGW. Unlike HTC, which operates solely in Highland County, Frontier does business in 27 states and reported revenue of nearly five billion dollars in 2013. Pocahontas County lies on the fringes of Frontier territory, whereas Highland County is the entire territory for HTC.
Is the little cooperative across the state line keeping pace and providing the same level of service as the telecommunications giant in Pocahontas County?
The major difference between HTC and Frontier Internet service is the baseline speed for all customers. HTC can provide reliable 4 megabit (Mb) service to all of its 629 broadband customers, and most can receive reliable 6 Mb service. In Pocahontas County, many Frontier customers do not receive reliable 1 Mb service.
HTC Technical Manager Chad Kimball said the company strives to provide equal service to all of its customers.
“We go through our system and we base our speeds on what we can reach all of our customers with, because of being a cooperative,” he said. “We don’t like for one customer to be able to get something that the one farthest out can’t. We may have a handful of customers who cannot get the six meg, but we are working toward that right now. One hundred percent of our customers can get four meg service – reliable.”
HTC has substations located in Monterey, Bluegrass, Mustoe and Mill Gap. At Mill Gap General Store – nowhere near an incorporated area – the store owner and nearby residents can receive 6 Mb service. Eight miles west
on Route 84, across the West Virginia state line, Frontier customers have difficulty connecting at 768k – eight times slower than the service in Mill Gap.
HTC offers four different Internet packages to its Highland County customers: 768k for $28.95; 1.5 Mb for $42.95; 4 Mb for $73.95 and 6 Mb for $89.95. The low-cost 768k package is the most popular among HTC’s 629 Internet customers.
Frontier no longer offers an economical 768k package. The cheapest package Frontier currently offers is “up to 1 Mb” for $36.99 – frustrating customers who cannot connect at half that speed.
Kimball provided insight into the economic realities.
“When you take a company that’s the size of Frontier, they have obligations in other areas that will give them a bigger return on their money,” he said. “It’s hard to get them to spend money in the areas that you and I live in, to provide better service.”
One similarity between Pocahontas County and Highland County is the lack of any real, direct competition. Both HTC and MGW managers stated that the companies are not trying to compete with each other. In fact, the companies assist each other to a large degree.
“We try not to shove the lack of competition at our customers,” said Kimball. “What we strive for – if competition does happen to come in, we want you to stay with us. When somebody calls in a trouble, we answer that trouble the same day. If you called us this morning and told us your DSL was out, we will be there before lunch to try to figure out why your DSL doesn’t work. We don’t leave any trouble overnight.”
Frontier trouble call response times range from 24 to 72 hours. During the January 28 Pocahontas County Commission meeting, Frontier Regional Manager Reta Griffith said customers who don’t like Frontier service can “cancel their service.”
Kimball said HTC enjoys a good relationship with the local government.
“We listen to what they have to say,” he said. “They give us feedback on what they would like to see. Everybody pretty much likes to see the same – they’re wanting to see the speed increase, but they want to see the price come down.”
Highland County Economic Development Authority Technology Committee Chairman and HTC contractor Nancy Witschey said the goal of Highland County government is continued broadband improvement.
“Our concern here is the higher speeds,” she said. “We recognize that four megabit isn’t going to do it. It’s just not going to do it because everything’s headed toward data streaming. Everything’s going to go on the cloud. You have to have very quick access and four isn’t going to do it. I do think the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] is missing the boat when they say that’s the minimum required for rural areas, because that’s not going to hack it. You cannot attract businesses with just four megabits.”
HTC is in the process of bringing fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) service to customers in Monterey, with broadband speeds as fast as 20 Mb. Business customers in Monterey already have access to the super-fast service.
“It’s actually in the development stages right now,” said Kimball. “We have our engineers coming in and getting ready to stake it in the next couple weeks. So we are getting ready to start a fiber-to-the-home project right in the Monterey area. We’re trying to expand our area without having the big government handouts and grants. We’re trying to do it ourselves.”
HTC’s five-year plan for Highland County is just a fantasy in Pocahontas County.
“Over the next five years, we’re going to try to complete fiber to everybody in Highland,” said Kimball.
HTC managers have discussed expanding into Frontier territory.
“We’ve got two areas that interest us a little bit, but we really haven’t ventured into seeing what the challenges would be,” he said. “The Route 84 direction has been talked about a little bit. And another one north of here, down 220 North. That really is in the Frontier area down there.”
A March 13 article in The Pocahontas Times discussed the need in West Virginia for a better “middle mile” fiber network to connect rural areas to Internet backbones. Kimball said HTC faces the same problem.
“We could run fiber, right from here, right to your back door, and hook your computer straight into it,” he said. “We still have to overcome the problem of getting that out of here and connected to the world wide web. Right now, we have a 70 megabit pipe right now, through MGW, clear to Staunton. That’s where we direct connect to the world wide web. That connection costs us quite a bit of money.”
MGW, based in Staunton, is the other independent company providing broadband service in Highland County. See next week’s edition for a report on how MGW is working to improve the middle mile network in Virginia, and whether any similar projects are underway to improve broadband quality in Pocahontas County.