Rural broadband initiatives include internet speed test
BLUEFIELD — Both statewide and regional initiatives are underway to bring high-speed broadband services to underserved areas in West Virginia, and residents can help. On the state level, the Broadband Enhancement Council, formed in 2016, is asking residents to test their internet speed. According to the council’s website, the test will generate a statewide broadband coverage map to identify the presence and levels of broadband service around the state.
Called the Speed Test Portal, residents can visit the website, at broadband.wv.gov, and click on the red icon that says “Take the speed test.” The test accurately measures their internet speed and records it. “Folks in West Virginia can go to the website and put in their information, their address, take a speed test that’s provided by a third party that has nothing to do with the state of West Virginia and see what kind of speed they’re receiving as a user,” said Bob Hinton, chairman of the council. State residents can then share their internet speed information on the portal.
“They can post those test results on our portal and we can then aggregate that data and cross check that data with the FCC data to get a really good idea of where broadband service is and what level of service is actually getting to the end customer,” Hinton said. Mercer County Commissioner Bill Archer said having effective broadband access is a must now. “To have greater broadband access I think is a great thing,” he said. “We are looking at increasing our internet speed in our system at the courthouse itself.”
Archer said funding is coming in from grants to expand and improve the service. The commission recently approved a “memorandum of understanding” to be a participant in a Region One Planning and Development Council (PCD) plan to study broadband service in Southern West Virginia. “We are all for it,” he said of Region One’s project. “It is a positive step.”
Jason Roberts, executive director of Region One, said £125,000 is being sought from Housing and Urban Development Community Block Grant (CDBG) funding that will be made available through the West Virginia Development Office. “The CDBG application was submitted last week,” he said. “If awarded, the £125,000 will be used as a match to apply for another £125,000 from the U.S. Economic Development Administration.”
Roberts said the funding will be used to hire a broadband engineering firm to perform a detailed study of the six-county region (McDowell, Mercer, Monroe, Raleigh, Summers and Wyoming). “The consultant will identify existing providers and technologies, as well as to map those locations that are unserved or underserved,” he said. “They will then engineer solutions for the provision of broadband based upon current technologies as well as anticipated growth patterns. Once the planning is complete, implementation funding will be sought from a variety of sources.”
Roberts said Region One is working “collectively” with the Region Four PDC (Fayette, Greenbrier, Nicholas, Pocahontas and Webster counties) to “have a true regional plan that will provide the service necessary for regional economic development.” Another tool related to the state’s enhancement effort is this year’s House Bill 3093, the Broadband Enhancement Expansion Policies, which was signed by Gov. Jim Justis and became effective last month.
Co-sponsored by Del. John Shott (R-Mercer County), the bill authorizes the creation of “cooperative associations” in remote areas. The cooperatives would pool resources and be used as a “mechanism for folks that are not being served to work together” to gain access, Shott said, adding that at least 20 users, either businesses or individuals, would be needed to create a cooperative.
Rural areas have in the past been left out of obtaining high speed internet service from carriers for basically economic reasons. “Part of the problem is the big carriers like Frontier say it’s not worth their investment,” he said, referring to extending the service into more remote areas by running the needed fiber optic cables. “They just can’t recoup their costs.” Cooperatives would be eligible for federal grants, he said, which help create the “last mile infrastructure” of providing broadband access to virtually everyone.
That includes helping to pay for “microtrenching,” burying the fiber optic cables that are necessary to provide the service from carriers. “Then Frontier (or another provider) can basically connect them (members of the cooperative) to the fiber optic network they have in a way that can be cost-effective,” he said. Shott said it also provides a way for cooperatives to negotiate reasonable prices with carriers.
“The places (that are remote) where we do have the service, it’s extremely expensive, more so than in other areas,” he said. State Sen. Chandler Swope supported the bill, saying, “”We have a tremendous need for broadband and I think the cooperative approach is one of the better ways to solve that.
I’m totally in favor of it.” That need is also echoed by Jim Spencer, economic development director for the City of Bluefield. “Without access to broadband, our businesses cannot compete on a global scale,” he said recently, explaining that products are now marketed all around the country and the world.
“Broadband access is crucial as an economic development tool,” he added. That “crucial” component is not lost at the federal level either. U.S.
Senators Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) issued a joint statement earlier this week addressing a budget shortfall for the High-Cost Universal Service Fund (USF). That shortfall, they say, is limiting access to reliable and affordable broadband in rural communities. The USF provides subsidies for telecommunication services in rural areas.
“A lack of resources to meet our (shared national broadband) goals is undermining investment and consumer access to affordable broadband across much of rural America,” the statement said. “For this reason, we write to encourage the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) to take the much-needed step of addressing the High-Cost Universal Service Fund (USF) budget shortfall.” The senators said providers serving rural areas already have difficulty dealing with “an arbitrary budget cap” on USF support. “We urge the FCC to take action as quickly as possible to ensure the High-Cost USF program provides sufficient and predictable support to help deliver affordable, high-quality broadband to rural consumers,” the statement said.