Capito Connect Program enters fourth year

MORGANTOWN — When Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., took office, one of her first actions was to set about bridging the gaps on internet connectivity, an endeavor that continues three years later via the Capito Connect initiative, which just entered its fourth year.

As co-chair of the United States Senate Broadband Caucus, Capito said she went to work with senators in other states and among both parties to form new partnerships and tackle the problem.

“Where we started was a recognition that West Virginia is falling woefully short on the wrong side of the digital divide,” the senator explained. “The other thing we discovered too is that West Virginia is not the only state, and a lot of it is an urban-rural divide.”

Given how an internet connection is starting to factor into aspects such as health care and agriculture, she said one of her efforts involved working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Community Connect Program to increase appropriations of up to $600 million to provide rural broadband, which is coming to fruition.

Block grants, she said, have also allowed West Virginia communities to acquire a smaller, but helpful amount of funding toward the same goal. Through these efforts, 4,000 customers in Barbour, Upshur and Randolph counties have been connected.

Accurate mapping and spreading awareness of the issue to higher levels of government have also been part of Capito’s efforts.

“We’ve had a lot of action in terms of FCC (Federal Communications Commission) visits, which is really good, and so it’s just an ongoing pressure to get those funds to go that last mile,” she said, noting that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has even diverted resources and attention to the Mountain State after visiting it twice upon request. “We’ve made a difference on them getting to focus on rural parts of the country.”

Capito said the effort hasn’t progressed as fast as she would’ve preferred, but there are successes in the form of pockets that had no connection a few years ago going online, and service co-ops such as Hardy Communications have been able to spring up and help fill in the gaps.

James Martin II, the president and CEO of internet service provider Citynet, highlighted the challenges faced in this arena, particularly when it comes to the expensive investments needed to reach people in rural areas. But he expressed confidence as the issue is moving to the forefront.

“We as a community need to realize there is a digital divide that is happening,” he said. “It’s normal to go into these rural area and (see) that they are are at a disadvantage to the rest of the country. I think what’s happening is more people are becoming acutely aware of the challenges of broadband in rural areas.”

Martin said if these barriers can be overcome, then larger internet providers and even local start-ups could get off the ground in these parts of the state.

Rob Hinton, chairman of the West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council and executive director of the Upshur County Development Authority, credited Capito with spreading this awareness.

“Senator Capito’s forward thinking Capito Connect initiative provides awareness, education and resources to communities throughout West Virginia,” he said. “Her leadership in Washington, along with her support of the West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council, will help to accelerate the expansion of reliable broadband throughout West Virginia.”

Tom Kuhn, program consultant at Charleston Area Medical Center and the Partners in Health Network Inc., said the senator’s efforts bode well in view of the growing links of technology and health care, such as telemedicine, which can provide patients with what they need without a visit to the doctor.

“Knowing there are many opportunities for telemedicine throughout the state, we applaud Sen. Capito for her efforts on the Capito Connect initiative,” he said. “Considering improved opportunities for access to healthcare because of enhanced and high-speed broadband in West Virginia will be a game changer for many. We are supportive of the work Sen. Capito has done.”

By:  Conor Griffith
Source: The State Journal