The National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank hosted a two-part broadband Internet conference last Wednesday. The first part of the conference was a meeting of the West Virginia Broadband Deployment Council (WVBDC), a state agency that oversees broadband development across the state. The second part was a “broadband summit,” featuring presentations by several broadband service providers.
State officials in attendance included Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick, Delegate Denise Campbell, Delegate Bill Hartman, Region IV Executive Director John Tuggle and Public Service Commissioner Ryan Palmer.
WVBDC members in attendance included Judge Dan O’Hanlon, Citynet CEO Jim Martin, Marshall University Senior Vice President Jan Fox and Department of Education Chief of Technology Sterling Beane, Jr. Members participating via teleconference included Frontier Communications Vice President Dana Waldo, Charleston Area Alliance CEO Matt Ballard, Communication Workers of America International Representative Elaine Harris and Governor Earl Ray Tomblin’s Chief of Staff, Charlie Lorensen.
The council meeting was notable – not only as a rare state agency session in remote Pocahontas County – but for a decision to spend more than $600,000 to expand publicly-owned regional Internet backbone in Pocahontas and Randolph counties.
The Legislature did not fund the WVBDC for 2015, so the group plans to deactivate at the end of this year. During Wednesday’s meeting, Martin moved to spend the council’s remaining funds to build fiber-optic Internet backbone lines in Pocahontas and Randolph Counties. Fox, O’Hanlon and Lorensen recused themselves from the vote, which passed by a tally of 3-2. Martin, Ballard and Beane voted for the measure; Waldo and Harris voted in opposition.
Martin has been a strong proponent of “middle mile” fiber-optic backbone construction, which connects rural areas to the national Internet backbone. The CEO displayed a map of existing fiber-optic backbone in Pocahontas and Randolph counties. The map showed a large loop of fiber connecting the two counties with three large, highlighted segments: Snowshoe to Cass; Valley Head to Mill Creek and Durbin to Green Bank – three segments owned by Frontier Communications.
Martin said publicly-owned fiber segments in the loop are rendered practically useless by Frontier-owned segments in-between. Martin said he negotiated with Frontier for three years and had been unable to reach agreement for the use of the privately-owned segments.
Waldo, Frontier’s top executive in West Virginia for the past four years, strongly opposed Martin’s proposal to build public broadband backbone in Pocahontas and Randolph counties.
“To use taxpayer money to overbuild existing facilities is not appropriate, particularly in a state that has budget issues,” he said. “What the outcome would be is to build fiber where existing fiber is already in place.”
Following the vote, which adopted his proposal, Martin described the potential impact.
“What’s currently in place, there is some publicly available fiber, built with federal dollars,” he said. “It connects certain portions of the county, but it doesn’t form a complete ring. The council made a motion today to use its excess funds to solicit bids to connect up those stranded fiber routes, so that there could be a ring put in place. Once that happens, it will enable providers like Citynet, Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks, possibly Shentel and maybe others. Once they can connect to that network, then they can reach into both of those counties and provide services.”
Prior to the vote, West Virginia Broadband Mapping Coordinator Tony Semintal reported that speed tests showed only a small fraction of Pocahontas County households receive true broadband service.
“In 2014, between January and June, in Pocahontas County, we had 992 test takers, of which only 37 were above the definition of broadband – which is four [megabits] down and one up,” he said. “That tells us that only four percent are above four megabits.”
“When we did our state broadband report, Pocahontas County was one of the lowest counties, in terms of access to broadband,” added O’Hanlon. “Part of it is we can’t do the wireless here.”
Wireless Internet service is greatly restricted in Pocahontas County, due to county’s location inside the National Radio Quiet Zone, established to reduce interference with the radiotelescope at Green Bank and the government communications site at Sugar Grove.
Martin said he expected the council to have a minimum of $600,000 in leftover funds.
“The council currently has $2.9 million in its account; $2.3 million has been allocated toward current broadband projects, meaning there’s a balance of about $600,000 to $700,000 remaining,” he said. “If some of those other project complete early and don’t use all the funds, then the remaining money could go toward this project. It could go as high as a million or a million-and-a-half.”
Martin conceded that funding likely would be insufficient to connect all three target backbone segments, but that one or two of the segments could be connected. Once a public, regional backbone is extended to the area, he said, companies will be able to expand fiber-optic broadband service into surrounding communities.
“When you come off of your backbone network, which costs $30,000 a mile to build – when you go out to a residence or business, that cost reduces dramatically because the size of the cable is very small,” he said. “Everyone within that populated area is going to have the opportunity for competitors to move in.”
Waldo decried the use of user-level broadband speed testing to determine state policy. Following the approval of Martin’s proposal, Waldo moved to transfer WVBDC’s remaining funds into the state general fund, but the motion died for lack of a second.
The local WVBDC project will be administered by West Virginia Network (WVNET), a state organization that provides telecommunications and computing services to West Virginia state colleges and universities, state government, K-12, public libraries and county governments. WVNET will solicit bids for construction of the three public regional backbone segments.
The WVBDC operates a broadband speed test at gis2.kimballdata.com/wvspeedtest.
See next week’s edition of The Pocahontas Times for a report on the broadband summit portion of Wednesday’s meeting.