It was reported at the October 13 Pocahontas County Broadband Council meeting that Richard Jenkins, of the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Regional Office, said during a phone call that there were three top reasons that Pocahontas County’s Reconnect Grant Round 3 application was denied.
1. There was a challenge to the application by the Internet Service Provider Spruce Knob/Seneca Rocks Telephone Company (SKSRT) because part of the county’s proposed service area would be within SKSRT’s current service area. The USDA Field agent looked into this and found 35 locations/instances of fiber installation and/or equipment that provided backup for SKSRT’s claim, as well as 16 speed tests from residences.
2. An operating agreement was not provided
3. The financial audit did not match or make sense, having missing entries. The USDA suggested making an assumptions document that pointed out the confusing information, however it was too late in the process to fix that.
Jenkins explained that another negative which would affect the county’s efforts to obtain a Reconnect 4 Grant, is that Frontier has now been officially awarded all the territories in the county that they had bid on under the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) Rural Development Opportunity Fund (RDOF.) He said this makes those vast areas of Pocahontas County ineligible to receive funding through the Reconnect 4 Grant, making a future application for Reconnect 4 not viable.
As a result of this USDA information, the council members decided to not apply for the Reconnect 4 grant. As an alternative, the council will pursue Community Connect grants, which are another USDA rural broadband grant funding opportunity, with applications for those grants opening later this fall. Community Connect grants, however, are smaller so it would take multiples of those grants to provide the same broadband coverage in the county as the Reconnect Grant would have provided.
Regarding other funding opportunities, Amanda Smarr said that the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) will be announcing new broadband grants shortly but the county may be ineligible because there already is an open ARC project here. She said that Small Cities Grant Funding will also be announced shortly, and those might include broadband funding. Smarr said Region 4 will keep searching for other additional funding opportunities.
It appears that the county may now, to a large extent, be dependent on Frontier building broadband in its RDOF areas, but there are concerns that Frontier may not be in any hurry to do so. However, John Golden said Frontier is still supposed to follow RDOF timeline milestones. Golden said those require Frontier to deploy completed broadband in their RDOF areas according to the following timelines:
• 40% of their area within three years of their RDOF approval (which just recently occurred.)
• 60% by year four
• 80% by year five
• 100% by year six
Allen Johnson suggested Senator Shelley Moore-Capito be invited to a council meeting to discuss the slow progress in building high-speed broadband service in the county, since she has said rural broadband is one of her top priorities.
It was stated at the meeting that there has been no further word received on the status of the WIN project, which is the wireless Internet network project proposed by a cellular carrier for the Watoga/Droop area of the county.
Cory Nipper, of Thompson and Litton, updated the council about the current ARC Power Grant Broadband Project. He said fieldwork identifying the capabilities of First Energy Power poles, which could be used in the project, is underway. He said there have been nine poles in the upper end of the county that they cannot reach to inspect since they are on posted private property. The council offered to provide any assistance it could in contacting property owners to help.
Nipper said once all the poles have been inspected as to their suitability and capacities, there will still need to be a finalized working financial agreement between the council and Citynet before negotiations can begin with First Energy about using their poles. The council said that agreement with Citynet is progressing.
Nipper added that the ultimate completion timeline for the ARC project (July 2024) still remains intact, however some interim timelines appear to be falling behind schedule.