Capito & Pai Op-Ed: Connecting West Virginia

It is not every day that a U.S. senator and a commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) get to stand 851 feet above West Virginia’s New River. But last week, we joined together and experienced the thrill of walking across the New River Gorge Bridge — an attraction that brings thousands of visitors to West Virginia each year to take in one of our nation’s most cherished natural treasures.

The bridge also served as a physical reminder of the digital divide in West Virginia — the gap between those who have high-speed, high-quality broadband and the many Mountaineers who don’t. That gap has a major impact on West Virginia’s economy and tourism industry.

That’s why, at Adventures on the Gorge, an outdoor recreation spot near the bridge, we convened local officials and business owners for a roundtable discussion focused on West Virginia’s digital divide and its impact on tourism.

We listened to the stories of business owners who have struggled to grow because of inadequate high-speed internet access. We learned about the tourism industry losing repeat customers due to lack of broadband. And we heard about the challenge of attracting millennials to live, work, and visit rural areas with limited connectivity.

One local business, known for its world-class whitewater rafting, rock climbing, and guided adventures, spoke of the challenges of connecting its entire 1,500-acre property. The cost for installing fiber on the resort is “astronomical.” Yet without being able to market that the resort’s cabins have Wi-Fi, the business faces a challenge.

A local restaurant shared its difficulty notifying customers of available tables through its online system. Some customers miss reservation notifications because the internet service is degraded, resulting in lost business for the restaurant.

A software developer who recently moved to West Virginia told us he had hoped to work from home. But he inadvertently bought a home in a town where he can’t get high-speed access. He’s had to scramble to adjust — weekly trips to a nearby town, using a phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot, and asking coworkers in California and London to upload files for him.

Stories like these highlight why reliable, affordable broadband services are essential to West Virginia’s economy. As West Virginia looks to grow its tourism industry and diversify its overall economy, internet access will be an essential part of the transition.

Reliable broadband access has changed how we work, socialize, and share information. For businesses and entrepreneurs, the internet can unlock the doors to economic growth, increase productivity, and enable goods and services to be marketed to customers across the globe.

Yet, for all of the benefits broadband offers, a lack of connectivity presents just as many challenges.

According to the 2016 Broadband Progress Report, West Virginia is ranked 48th in the nation for broadband availability. Thirty percent of West Virginia residents do not have access to broadband service that meets FCC benchmarks, and in rural areas of the state this number is as high as 48 percent.

Rural America deserves better.

We discussed several solutions during last week’s roundtable, including reducing barriers to investing in infrastructure like fiber, streamlining regulations for wireless providers, encouraging public-private partnerships to improve technology, and ensuring accountability regarding taxpayer dollars intended for broadband development. All of this would promote greater access and competition.

This was just the start. We will continue working together to bridge the digital divide that is hindering West Virginia’s businesses, especially in tourism. The state faces some challenges, but it also has major assets: hard-working residents, a spirit of community, and unmatched scenery. The internet is an increasingly critical way for the state to promote these assets. With all the beauty and adventure that West Virginia has to offer, it’s time to give the rest of the world an opportunity to cross the digital bridge and connect with the Mountain State.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito chairs the Senate Broadband Caucus. Mr. Ajit Pai is a commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission.

By:  U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va) and FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai
Source: Beckley Register-Herald