One of my first efforts as a U.S. senator was launching my Capito Connect initiative — a roadmap for bringing affordable, reliable, high-speed internet access to homes, businesses, and classrooms in West Virginia.
Each year, we’re making significant strides, and this past year, we’ve made even more progress.
After asking Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing for his commitment to partner with West Virginia on rural fiber deployment, Facebook announced in March they are investing 275 miles of long haul fiber right through the southern portion of state. And just last month, I joined Governor Justice, Congresswoman Carol Miller, and executives from Facebook in Beckley for the ceremonial groundbreaking of this major broadband project.
Private investments like these are important for the expansion of broadband as they open up rural communities to build off these lines, much like branches off the trunk of a tree.
But, this isn’t the only investment we’re celebrating in West Virginia. In fact, we’ve been building on this momentum for quite some time.
Last fall, we were able to celebrate the first fiber infrastructure investment in our state with Zayo’s announcement to construct a similar build through North Central West Virginia. And earlier this year, we celebrated the official grand opening of the global tech company Infor’s new office in Charleston, which will bring new tech jobs to the state.
I’ve also worked to leverage federal agencies, particularly the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), to invest in West Virginia with federal grants and loans.
In the past three months alone:
And, there is more good news coming this month from the USDA.
Home by home, business by business, these federal investments in North Central West Virginia are making a difference.
Because of my committee placements, I’ve been able to focus acutely on rural broadband and deliver tangible results.
For example, through the Commerce Committee, I’ve developed a close working relationship with Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai.
At my invitation, Chairman Pai has made several visits to West Virginia with me and seen firsthand the challenges that our communities face without proper connectivity. He’s stressed to me that the FCC is committed to correcting their outdated and inaccurate maps. These maps are critical, as they are often used to determine formula funding.
I applaud Chairman Pai and the FCC for looking to the states for innovative solutions to improve these maps. At my insistence, West Virginia was included as one of eight pilot states that provide alternative mapping data to the FCC. I encourage all West Virginians experiencing shoddy service to take a speed test on the West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council website to ensure their results will help West Virginia be a leader in this pilot project.
In my role as the chairman of the Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee’s Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee, I’ve worked to prioritize broadband buildout while we work to improve our roads and bridges.
My federal highway bill, which passed out of the EPW Committee unanimously, authorizes $20 million dedicated to broadband deployment through the Appalachian Regional Commission. This is double the existing level.
As a leader on the Appropriations Committee, I’ve been able to make investments within federal agencies toward broadband deployment, as well as improved mapping and measuring. We are investing more than $1 billion through a USDA pilot program to improve rural broadband, and I made sure communities can use their Community Development Block Grants (CDBGs) for broadband buildout. I’m proud to say the FY2020 appropriations bills reflect these priorities.
As co-chair of the Senate Broadband Caucus, I’ve worked with Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., this year to help states, cities, and towns spur investment in rural broadband projects. These bills would create tax credits for states and localities to direct toward rural broadband projects and support public, private and municipally directed rural broadband bonds.
While we’ve made great strides, there’s always more work to do.
Federal, state, and local entities must work in tandem to ensure we reach those last-mile communities.
On the state level, the West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council is an important partner in closing the digital divide in West Virginia.
I applaud their efforts to use state CDBG dollars to not only help communities plan for the networks that will best serve them, but also identify the best technologies to serve each communities.
This targeted approach saves time and money and helps towns get the right service for them.
I’ll continue doing my part at the federal level to educate municipalities about the federal resources available to them, and I’ll continue working to ensure Congress’s priorities include broadband buildout.
2019 marked a year of significant progress when it comes to broadband, and I’m confident that we can build on this momentum and strive for even bigger results in 2020.
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