The Pocahontas County ARC Broadband Project, which is based upon a grant award of $2.5 million from back in September of 2021, was originally set to begin construction in 2022. After several delays, the start of construction eventually moved to July 2023. However, at the March 23, 2023 Pocahontas County Broadband Council meeting, Cory Nipper, an Engineer at Thompson and Litton, Inc (T&L) said the newest timeline has construction not starting until January 2024.
Nipper explained that the initial fieldwork has been completed, and the maintenance and ownership agreement between the county and the Internet Service Provider (ISP,) Citynet has been completed.
Nipper and Brian Tew, also from T&L, presented a written timeline showing what has been completed and gives estimates for completion of other required paperwork and permits such as: West Virginia Department of Health permits, Public Service Commission reviews, public comment periods, Development Office Reviews, and contractor bidding and selection still need to be completed before actual construction can begin. Nipper said he will still try and compress the timeline to complete these things as early as he can so that it is still possible construction could begin a little earlier.
Amanda Smarr of Region 4 said the types of delays the project has been experiencing are not unusual, and in fact are very common in large projects such as this.
Nipper said the good news is that once all these paperwork requirements are finally complete, the actual construction will move forward quickly, with completion in about 125 days, so if begun on January 19, 2024, it could be completed by July 11, 2024.
The USDA’s Community Connect Grant was also discussed at this meeting. Smarr said the portal for submitting these applications has finally opened, with grant applications due by June 20. Mike Holstine added that Citynet is fully committed to helping the Broadband Council with this. Smarr and Holstine said the first step in preparing an application for this grant is to meet with Citynet, Region 4 and T&L to determine where to start in smaller areas of the county. Holstine recommended that they begin with communities on Back Mountain Road for the first of these Community Connect Grant applications.
Smarr explained that Community Connect grants are limited to $4 million each, but you can apply for one a year. She said you normally must complete an awarded grant before applying for another, but they seem to be flexible about that. Sarah Riley added that it looks like the Community Connect people seem to understand Pocahontas County has been “stuck between a rock and a hard place, so they are willing to do everything they can to help us.”
Brian Tew suggested it would be ideal if the council applied for and got one Community Connect Grant per year, so that the county could remain in construction mode as the projects continued to be built around the county. John Golden questioned whether Citynet would have the capacity to do that, but Holstine said that, while Citynet does appear to be at near capacity, they have committed to only do Pocahontas County broadband projects in West Virginia.
It was brought up that while there is enough money remaining in their study grant for planning, the council should be looking for and applying for other grants to pay for design work.
Holstine was asked about the broadband installations the state parks are considering at Watoga State Park. He said they have been awarded funding through the West Virginia Office of Broadband, and are considering a system using a combination of fiber and wireless to deliver broadband at the park, although they are struggling with working around the Quiet Zone restrictions.
They also discussed setting up public broadband meetings to target certain population groups such as veterans, senior citizens, prisoners at Denmar and people with incomes below the poverty level.