Improved Broadband – not such a broad stretch

The Rural Electrification Act of 1936 was intended “to light the nation by supplying the infrastructure and funding to electrify isolated U.S. farms.”
TVA: Electricity for All reports that “although nearly 90 percent of urban dwellers had electricity by the 1930s, only 10 percent of rural dwellers did. Private utility companies, who supplied electric power to most of the nation’s consumers, argued that it was too expensive to string electric lines to isolated rural farmsteads. Anyway, they said, most farmers, were too poor to be able to afford electricity.
“When farmers did receive electric power their purchase of electric appliances helped to increase sales for local merchants. Farmers required more energy than city dwellers, which helped to offset the extra cost involved in bringing power lines to the country.”
Fast forward to the present day, and we find that rural areas such as Pocahontas County are now, in many cases, denied adequate, much less equal, Internet service as that provided to more populated areas.
Frustration and hope came together in the Jansky Lab Auditorium at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank last week, when the NRAO and its Business Manager, Mike Holstine, hosted the second Broadband Summit.
Representatives from three Internet providers – Frontier, Citynet and Spruce Knob Seneca Rocks Telecommunications – were on hand to talk about their products and progress, and at the end of the summit, they sat down for a roundtable discussion about solutions going forward.
Holstine opened the event detailing the importance of the Internet in today’s world.
Studies show that 100 Mbps is the speed necessary to achieve successful results in rural areas in order to attract new businesses, help local companies grow, revive depressed business districts and communities, and increase individuals’ income.
Recent test results show only a 3.4 Mbps download speed, and 0.55 upload. Numbers such as these make participation in online auctions impossible for area business owners, Holstine said.
Although Pocahontas County now has a predominately tourism-based economy, there are folks living here who struggle with home-based Internet businesses, and others who would like to live in the county full-time, but cannot to do so because of the lack of adequate Internet access.
Holstine provided a chart which showed that, for new homebuyers, the need for fast Internet/Broadband surpasses TV offerings, outdoor recreation, a pool and/or workout facilities.
West Virginia Senator Chris Walters (R) represents Putnam and Kanawha counties and serves as Chair of Transportation and Infrastructure and Vice-Chair of Finance.
Walters spoke about how slow broadband and dropped Internet connections affect students in rural areas who take online college classes.
“If you lose your connection,” Walters said, “you fail the test. There is no do-over.”
But the impact is even more acute.
“Broadband is as important as water and electricity,” he said.
Reminiscent of The Rural Electrification Act, Walters co-sponsored a bill with Senator Bob Williams (D) Taylor, last legislative session which called for the state to invest in 2,500 miles of middle mile broadband infrastructure, thereby allowing small companies to feed off of it to supply last mile service to customers in rural areas.
“Middle mile fiber is like an interstate of service,” Walters said. “Does it make any sense for private companies to build all this infrastructure? No.”
Although the bill passed through the Senate’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, it failed to make it out of the Finance Committee.
“It’s a great thing,” Walters said. “This can’t go away.”
Walters said he will introduce the bill at the next session on “day one.”
Walter believes that improved broadband, coupled with the state’s workforce, land availability and low energy costs will make West Virginia an attractive business location.
“We need to educate our legislators,” Walters said. “Get it done, and move it forward. The state is in the business of providing interstates. The state is not in the business of putting in that last mile to your house. Companies make their money on the last mile, not on the middle mile.”
Walters encourages everyone to contact their representatives.
“They need to hear it from you,” he said to the group. “This is social. This is economic.
“Toyota says West Virginia has the best workforce of any of its plants. We have the workforce. We have land. Because of the way we have extracted coal, we have some flat land available.”
Senator Greg Boso (R) Nicholas, attended the summit on Wednesday.
Following Walters’ presentation, Boso said, “Once I read the bill, I see that it is very much like the 1970s ARC [Appalachian Regional Commission]. The Appalachian Corridor was built and we see growth there now.”
While the southern part of the state is turning away from natural resources, where extraction methods through the years have resulted in flat landscapes suitable for the construction of business facilities, Pocahontas County has determined that its future lies in the tourism industry.
Pocahontas County Convention and Visitors Bureau director Cara Rose expressed her desire that improved Internet service be available to encourage longer stays for tourists visiting the county, thus increasing the financial impact of the tourism industry.
Talk about broadband – fiber vs copper, upload and download speeds – is confusing enough, but throw in government funds that get mingled with the monies of a private company and things get even murkier.
Frontier Communications is the primary Internet provider for Pocahontas County. The company has built middle mile networks, and when audience members questioned why Frontier would not allow small companies to tie in to those networks, former MCNC President and CEO Joe Freddoso came to Frontier’s defense reminding those in attendance that Frontier is a publically traded company, and, as such, company personnel have to answer to the shareholders.
Frontier Senior Vice President for West Virginia Operations Kevin Wallick said he has worked for Frontier in five states, and he sees issues in West Virginia similar to those in the other states.
“Frontier built the middle mile,” Wallick said. “When we brought the last mile to you, you were happy. But how we use the Internet has changed.”
Frontier recently received $248 million in CAF II (Connect America Fund) funding – $1.495 million of which is targeted for Pocahontas County. For now, Frontier says the Arbovale and Frost areas are eligible for upgrades with these funds.
That’s the good news.
The other side of the coin is that this is a six-year project, with five years yet to go.
But Wallick did offer some encouragement for better service in the immediate future.
“Once we finish the upgrade in Bluefield,” he said, “you will see an increased improvement in your service here. And now that we have accepted the CAF II funds, everyone in the eligible serving areas will have better broadband. We have invested in our own middle mile. This is last mile work.”
Citynet President and CEO Jim Martin outlined his company’s success with the Citynet/ Snowshoe Broadband Project.
Martin said that “back in the day” Citynet was the largest dial-up provider, but now all its service is fiber-based.
Snowshoe President Frank DeBerry contacted Martin more than two years ago, telling him that the most complaints he received concerned poor Internet and cell phone signals, and asked for Citynet’s help in improving those services.
Martin told DeBerry that his company didn’t do broadband residential, and perhaps Martin’s initial reaction to the request is in line with that of other Internet providers: “Frank, you’re in the middle of freakin’ nowhere.”
DeBerry said he would partner with anyone to get the service to the mountain.
Although Citynet faced many hurdles, backed by a $700,000 grant, and cooperation from SKSRT, Hardy Net, Shentel, the West Virginia Department of Commerce – Cass Scenic Railroad State Park, BTOP (Broadband Technology Opportunities Program) Green Bank Circuit, the West Virginia Office of Technology and the NRAO, the company completed the project in November 2014, providing service to the entire top of the mountain.
“Return on investment” is the driving force of any industry, and the close proximity of the homes at Snowshoe made the project financially feasible.
Wallick commended Martin for the work that was done at Snowshoe, but reiterated that Frontier works in a larger area and must find ways to get service to those customers.
David Hunt said SKSRT has provided 100 percent fiber in Pendleton County. That feat was accomplished by a 100 percent grant for the project.
SKSRT said it lost three grant applications to provide services in Pocahontas County, because Frontier has plans to serve those areas.
“Today, broadband speed is 25 mg,” Martin said. “The FCC wants households to have 100 mg. Copper is dead. DSL is done. You have to have fiber.”
Broadband is not a simple subject to discuss, nor an inexpensive service to provide, but, perhaps, as with electricity, new business opportunities generated by better Broadband/Internet access will “offset the extra cost involved in bringing it to the country.”
Contact information for our representatives:
Senator Greg Boso, Room 210W, Building 1, State Capitol Complex, Charleston, WV 25305, email greg.boso@wvsenate.gov
Senator Robert Karnes, Room 200W, Building 1, State Capitol Complex, Charleston, WV 25305, email robert.karnes@wvsenate.gov
Delegate Bill Hartman, Room 231E, Building 1, State Capitol Complex, Charleston, WV 25305, email billhartman@suddenlink.net
Delegate Denise Campbell, Room 151R, Building 1, State Capitol Complex, Charleston, WV 25305, email denise.campbell@wv house.gov
Jaynell Graham may be contacted at jsgraham@pocahontastimes.com

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