During its January 28 meeting, the Pocahontas County Commission considered sending a letter to state and federal officials, condemning the low quality of Internet service provided by Frontier Communications and requesting their assistance to get better service. Following a prolonged debate, the commission voted 2-1 to send the letter.
Frontier Regional Manager Reta Griffith and Supervisor John Mutscheller represented Frontier. Frost-area residents Allen Johnson and Mike Holstine spoke in favor of sending the letter.
Commission President David Fleming said Frontier is not keeping its promises to customers.
“Speed test results show that some customers consistently and routinely receive one-tenth of advertised speed,” he said.
Griffith said Frontier is seeking federal funding to improve service.
“If you’re below four meg [four megabits per second], you’re considered under-served,” she said. “Frontier has been actively seeking funding from the FCC [Federal Communications Commission], so that we can serve those communities and offset those costs. That does, however, take time. That money doesn’t even roll out until later this year.”
Johnson, the former county libraries director, said faster Internet is vital to the county’s future.
“If we want to keep our talented young people here, our social and business entrepreneurs of the future, or the ones who might want to come in here, we need it today in this information age,” he said. “Connectivity is important. If we want to have a vibrant, growing community, those people need to be connected.”
Johnson said a nearby rural Internet company is doing a better job.
“I know that Spruce Knob Seneca Rocks offers fiber-to-the-house in Circleville and Riverton – a much more boondocks area than here – at a price comparable to what Frontier charges,” he said. “That’s what we need here for community and economic vibrancy and growth for our future. Just like we had to have electricity, telephone and good roads.”
Fleming said the state and federal governments could do more to guarantee adequate Internet service in rural areas.
“I like your analogy about rural electrification and telephone,” he said. “What I hope can happen, at a state level and even the federal level, is that Internet communication can come under the same regulatory framework that electricity and telephone does.”
“One thing that rural electrification and telephone did for us was, it guaranteed that no matter how far out a road you lived, whether it be two miles or right on Main Street or anywhere else, that you were not a second-class citizen,” Fleming added. “You were a citizen of the United States of America and therefore, you had the same right to electricity and telephone.”
Johnson said Frontier CEO Maggie Wilderotter places a low priority on rural Internet service.
“Her board said that, in these rural areas, four megabit download would be fine, because we’re just rural people,” he said. “To me, that’s saying we’re just stupid hillbillies and hicks and we don’t need to have stuff like in the city, where you can get 20 or 50 megabits, if you need it and you’re willing to pay for it. That hit me really hard when I saw that we’re just a bunch of hicks who don’t need much. I am angry, because I see our future at stake and I see a monopolistic company that’s trying to keep its monopoly, so they can over-subscribe, keep the broadband speed down and charge us some of the highest rates in the country.”
Holstine, President of the Pocahontas County Chamber of Commerce, said the group received no response when it contacted Wilderotter.
“The board voted to send a letter to Mrs. Wilderotter about some of her comments that she had made and we got no response,” he said. “It’s imperative to the businesses here, and Pocahontas County is in some regards unique. Almost all of the businesses are small businesses, but many of the businesses are done from the owner’s home or their farm.”
“The disadvantage comes when you don’t have the technological infrastructure in place to provide what that business needs,” Holstine added. “The businesses of the county are feeling the issue.”
Mutscheller said Frontier is working to improve local service.
“We are constantly upgrading within our network,” he said. “Within Marlinton, we’ve got customers at 10 to 15 megs on copper. The hospital’s on 20 meg copper. So, Frontier is working to improve our Internet product. It’s important to us. I would hope the commission would support us, as a local company.”
Holstine noted that Frontier is not a local company.
“I applaud Reta and John,” he said. “I have always said these local people are unbelievably good. Never, ever have I had an issue with them. It’s the management of the company. This company is in Connecticut. It’s not in West Virginia. It hires people in West Virginia, but it’s not a West Virginia company.”
Fleming read several letters from Frontier customers, requesting commission action on the company’s substandard service and high prices.
Commissioner William Beard also noted that local employees are not to blame for the service problems.
“It’s a concern,” he said. “There’s a lot of people complaining to me about it, also. I think Frontier – theses two people here – they work hard to try and do what they can, but the company will just let you do so much with the resources. We’re kind of between a rock and a hard place on both sides, but we do need the service. I want to say all your employees are good people who do a good job and there’s nothing you can say about them. It’s just the company itself.”
“If it made money, people would be lined up here to provide service,” Griffith responded.
Commissioner Jamie Walker said providing equal service to remote areas might be costly for all Frontier customers.
“With a county as big as we are, that’s kind of the concern that I got,” he said. “It ain’t like there’s 200 people per square mile, you know. You build a mile of line, for one customer, and in the future, will a $30 a month bill maintain that mile of line for that one customer?”
“My personal opinion is, fiber optic cable is cheap,” Holstine responded. “How you run it from one point to another is the expense.”
Fleming moved to send the letter.
“I feel we need help,” he said. “We’ve been meeting over this for four years and we haven’t heard anything except promises. The prices have remained high, the service has remained low for many citizens. So, I’m going to move now that we send the letter.”
Walker opposed sending the letter.
“I kind of feel bad, singling out one company, that’s been here, that’s basically a lot of people’s only option, and putting them in the squeeze here,” he said.
Beard supported sending the letter.
“It’s not anything against Reta or John, but I do think the main company needs some pressure put on it to give us some help.”