“Middle mile” key to rural broadband
When it comes to broadband Internet, Pocahontas County is one of the least colorful places in West Virginia – and that’s not a good thing. On a West Virginia Broadband Deployment Council (WVBDC) map of West Virginia, more color means more Internet service providers. On that map, the vast majority of Pocahontas County is a dull tan, indicating just one provider.
Frontier Communications is the sole provider of Internet service in most of Pocahontas County. The multi-billion dollar corporation, based in Connecticut, does business in 27 states. The company has come under fire in West Virginia and elsewhere for what critics say is a failure to upgrade Internet service in rural areas.
Like all free market proponents, Citynet CEO Jim Martin thinks a monopoly, like Frontier enjoys in most of Pocahontas County, means poor service. During the Pocahontas County Commission meeting on March 4, Martin said competition leads to better service.
“I’m a big proponent of competition,” he said. “When you have competition in place, you get a better product, better prices, better service. Without competition, you’re going to be stuck with what you’ve got.”
Martin told the commission about a proposal to improve broadband service at Snowshoe Mountain Resort. Citynet applied for $700,000 in grant money to build a microwave link between Bridgeport and Snowshoe, which would greatly improve Internet speeds on the mountain.
“The reason we selected Snowshoe is because of its dense population and some of the current infrastructure that Snowshoe has in place today,” Martin said. “They have a fiber-optic network that spans atop the mountain, connects to Silver Creek and the bottom of the mountain. Because of that infrastructure they’ve got and, hopefully, the NRAO will allow us to use a microwave link. The combination of those two things and this grant money that is available makes that a viable project.”
Martin said a microwave link is necessary because there is no fiber-optic backbone into Pocahontas County.
“The number one challenge to get broadband to Snowshoe or to anywhere in Pocahontas County is that you need proper infrastructure,” he said. “Essentially, you need fiber-optic cable. There is no fiber in this community that is available to competition. There is a provider here and they own their own network. They control who gets on it, who gets off and at what price.”
The top 50 metropolitan areas in the U.S. are interconnected by next generation fiber-optic backbones, capable of carrying massive amounts of bandwidth. According to a Citynet-prepared map at westvirginia.com, a primary backbone line between Pittsburgh and Columbus, Ohio crosses the Northern Panhandle, but is otherwise non-existent in West Virginia.
Martin says West Virginia needs an intermediate fiber-optic backbone, known as the “middle mile,” to connect rural areas to the primary, national backbone.
“Citynet is in Charleston and Bridgeport, but to get from there into the rural community – there is no access,” he said. “Typically, you’ll hear that referred to as the middle mile. It’s the highway system. The last mile is the network within the community. So, Snowshoe’s got great last mile connectivity on top and we’re able to deliver a middle mile solution to them via microwave. We’re using air waves to bypass the rugged terrain we’ve got.”
Martin harshly condemned a recently completed $42 million project to build fiber-optic cable in West Virginia because the contractor, Frontier Communications, built only last mile fiber-optic cable.
“What they did was – they went into the data room of those facilities, came out of the building and went to the nearest telephone pole and stopped,” he said. “They enhanced their own network to guarantee them an essential monopoly with all state business, because that fiber is not accessible by any other provider. There’s no use to any provider but Frontier. It’s an absolute tragedy.”
Frontier built 675 miles of fiber optic cable to public facilities such as schools, State Police barracks, hospitals and government offices. Martin requested a state audit when Frontier charged the state about $62,000 per mile – what Martin claimed is twice the going rate. Frontier executives blamed the higher cost on legal fees and a federal requirement to pay union wages.
Martin, who grew up in Randolph County, said the real problem is the failure to build a middle mile fiber backbone throughout the state, which would connect rural areas to the national backbone, allow access to different providers, and break the monopoly where it exists. See westvirginia.com for an explanation of Martin’s plan. The WVBDC map of West Virginia Internet coverage can be found at broadband.wv.gov.
During the March 4 county commission meeting, Martin offered to take part in a public forum on Internet issues in Pocahontas County. National Radio Astronomy Observatory Business Manager Mike Holstine said the facility is available to host a forum. A forum has yet to be scheduled.