Editorial: W.Va. Must Invest in Broadband Infrastructure

West Virginia is at a crossroads: Our leaders must find a way to diversify the Mountain State’s economy from one primarily driven by manufacturing and extractive industries — coal mining in particular — to one based on technology and driven by broadband access.

For over 100 years, coal has been king in West Virginia, accounting for the greatest share of the state’s gross domestic products and tax revenues.

Sadly, because of the Obama administration’s EPA over-reach, the negative effects of climate change and the unprecedented decline of global energy prices, coal has become the “odd man out” in terms of electricity generation going forward.

Even with the Marcellus Shale gas boom, our state has been unable to offset in the short term the collapse of our coal-based economy.

The question is, where do we go from here?

Historically, the key to economic growth and job creation has been investment in infrastructure — water and sewer lines, electrical service, telecommunications, highways, railroads and airports — to attract manufacturing industries and other businesses.

Infrastructure investment is still the the key to economic growth. But in today’s high-tech world, that investment must be in broadband Internet access.

With the capability to use the Internet via broadband access, job-creating businesses can operate anywhere in the world. That includes right here in “Almost Heaven West Virginia,” with our beautiful outdoors, low crime rate and low cost of living.

Unfortunately, despite nearly a billion dollars invested by Frontier Communications and CityNet — including $150 million in federal stimulus funding — there is a giant gap in broadband access in our state.

A recent study by the Federal Communications Commission shows that 56 percent of West Virginia residents don’t have access to broadband; 74 percent in the rural areas of the state lack access.

U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-West Virginia, has been championing a plan on the federal level to bring affordable, high-speed Internet access to every home, business and classroom in the state.

“High-speed Internet access is a pillar of our 21st century infrastructure and a gateway to economic growth in rural America,” Capito has said. “When I was sworn in to the Senate, I outlined my top priorities for strengthening West Virginia, and improving broadband is at the top of that list. Better connecting West Virginia through increased broadband access is imperative if we are going to compete and thrive.”

State Sen. Chris Walters, R-Putnam, told West Virginia Public Broadcasting that he wants the state government to build a sort of fiber-optic interstate highway and then lease it to private providers.

Senate Bill 459 calls on the state to invest $78 million to bring faster Internet service at cheaper costs to more West Virginians.

The funds would pay for installation of 2,600 miles of fiber-optic cable across West Virginia, with an emphasis on expanding broadband access in rural areas.

The state would own the fiber-optic network, but allow open access to any private business that wants to connect smaller communities to the main lines. That arrangement would help reduce the private sector’s Internet connection costs and incentivize expansion of Internet access, according to Walters, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee.

Jim Martin, owner of Internet provider CityNet, told transportation committee members that such a fiber-optic network would allow the private sector to partner with the state to provide much-needed broadband access while also lowering the cost for providing service to schools, libraries and other government facilities.

To ensure a brighter future for state residents, West Virginia’s leaders must invest in broadband infrastructure and the connectivity that it provides. Doing so will help diversify the state’s economy and create the technology jobs of the future.

Source: The Exponent Telegram