During a broadband summit at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory on July 23, representatives of West Virginia Internet providers and other officials gave talks on broadband-related topics. The focus of the presentations was improvement of broadband access in rural West Virginia.
Frontier Communications Senior Operations Manager Mark McKenzie said Frontier had completed a fiber-optic broadband network across the state, using federal and company funds.
“Here’s the good news,” he said. “We’re not done dealing with this network. It will evolve. We built this superhighway, we believe. The good news is that, over time, we will increase the on-off ramps to that network as we continue to reach further and further into rural parts of West Virginia. That network already reaches into Pocahontas County.”
McKenzie said Frontier had invested $450,000 to complete upgrades in Pocahontas County this year – the second highest expenditure in West Virginia. He said the upgrades would affect 1,848 customers and provide broadband service, as defined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), to all those customers. The FCC currently defines broadband as a minimum four megabits per second (Mbps) download and one Mbps upload speeds.
The manager displayed a map showing broadband speeds that are available now or will be available by the end of the year in different parts of the county. According to the map, customers within approximately 3.5 miles of Frontier central offices in Hillsboro, Marlinton, Snowshoe and Arbovale should expect download speed of up to 24-40 Mbps.
McKenzie responded to criticism that Frontier used a $42 million Broadband Technology Opportunity Program (BTOP) grant to build segmented fiber lines that benefit only Frontier and cannot be reasonably accessed by competing companies.
“We built the grant the way the federal government told us to build the grant and they monitored every step of that,” said McKenzie.
Spruce Knobs Seneca Rocks Telephone (SKSRT) project manager David Hunt gave an update on the fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) project being completed in the northern end of the county. SKSRT received a federal stimulus grant of $8.5 million to expand FTTH in Pendleton and Pocahontas counties and invested more than $8.8 million of its own money into FTTH projects.
Hunt explained that SKSRT will operate central electronics sites in Bartow, Green Bank and Cass and that FTTH service will be available within approximately 10 miles of those sites. The company will offer Internet, television and telephone services through the FTTH technology. Standard broadband packages will range from 1.5 Mbps ($39.95) to 10 Mbps ($79.95). Higher speeds are available on special order.
“You can get what you want,” said Hunt. “We’ve got people asking for 10 gig (10,000 Mbps). We’re looking at any opportunities. It’s not a problem transmitting it over the fiber. We’ve got extra fibers set up to transport over the network.”
State GIS Coordinator and Broadband Mapping and Planning Coordinator Tony Simental reported that 63 percent of user-level speed tests on the WVBDC test site this year were above four Mbps download and one Mbps upload – up from 48 percent in 2012. The coordinator said only four percent of tests originating from Pocahontas County met the FCC broadband definition speed.
In January 2013, FCC Chairman Julius Genachoski issued a “Gigabit City Challenge,” calling for all 50 states to have at least one community with gigabit (1,000 Mbps) broadband access by 2015. Google was first to respond to the challenge and announced that it would provide gigabit Google Fiber service in Kansas City for just $70 per month.
Simental described a gigabit city initiative in West Virginia.
“We are conducting feasibility studies in different cities in West Virginia,” he said. “We’re going to start in Huntington, as a pilot program, to see how good or bad it works. After that, we plan on doing several other cities. I believe that one of the smaller municipalities in Pocahontas County will be included in that.”
Citynet CEO Jim Martin discussed the lack of competitively priced access to regional Internet backbone lines in West Virginia. The CEO said high tariffs, originally established for telecommunications, are stifling competition.
“Tariff pricing kind of refers to the old telecommunications agreements under which we can buy capacity off of the incumbent carrier, which generally in West Virginia is Frontier,” he said. “There may be other providers in some areas. As a competitor, we can buy capacity off of them. Generally, the tariffs – what they sell is 45 meg service. Our cost for 45 meg service is $10,000 a month.”
Martin said high tariffs make broadband transport 30 to 40 times more expensive in rural West Virginia than it is in areas with open-access “middle mile” fiber networks.
“Those prices were established years and years ago, predominantly for telecom, not broadband,” he said. “Broadband’s not regulated. If a provider wants to get into a rural market, this is the only mechanism they’ve got to get there if there’s only one provider. That’s why you don’t see competitors going into rural West Virginia.”
Martin has been a strong proponent of public funding to complete open-access fiber backbone networks, which he contends would allow competition and lower prices.
The WVBDC will deactivate at the end of the year, due to a lack of state funding. During a West Virginia Broadband Deployment Council (WVBDC) meeting preceding the broadband summit, the WVBDC approved Martin’s motion to spend all remaining funds to complete segments of open-access Internet backbone in Pocahontas and Randolph counties. At the time, Martin estimated funds available for the project in excess of $600,000.
Since then, the Charleston Gazette reported the WVBDC has just $329,000 remaining in its account and has yet to pay significant legal and consulting fees. Martin said other WVBDC projects could come in under budget and provide a remainder – possibly funding the Pocahontas-Randolph project.
Shentel spokesman Jeff Manning described his company’s network in Pocahontas County as a “standalone system,” not connected to the national Internet backbone. Manning said the lack of access to a regional broadband backbone prevented his company from expanding services in the county.
“What we’re lacking is that middle mile,” he said. “That network in the Marlinton and Hillsboro area is one gigahertz, HFC [hybrid fiber-coax], DOCSIS 3 [telecommunications standard], capable of up to 100 meg-plus to the home, if we could get that access out to the rest of our fiber-optic network.”
Representatives of Highland Telephone Cooperative and Hardy Telecommunications concluded the broadband summit with presentations on their companies’ operations. Neither company has plans to provide service in Pocahontas County, but the representatives provided insight into how their companies had overcome the challenges of providing competitive broadband access in rural areas.