Efforts continue to increase WV broadband access

MADISON, W.Va. – Federal, state and local officials continue to work to coordinate and encourage efforts to increase internet connectivity, broadband access and cellular phone service in West Virginia.

"Broadband access continues to be an issue in the southern coalfield communities in West Virginia," said Kris Mitchell, director at Boone County Community and Economic Development Corp.

Mitchell says there can be no real diversification efforts in her county without increased broadband access.

"It is vital to economic development, but I know of no planned upgrades," she said. "Broadband is now a must-have for recruitment and expansion, just as electricity and water. Sen. Capito has made it a priority, so hopefully they will come soon."

Since launching her "Capito Connect" plan in 2015, U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., has been trying to advance new solutions to connect West Virginia.

"Making sure West Virginia communities are connected to each other and areas outside of our state is critically important to encouraging economic growth, keeping our communities safe and improving the lives of West Virginians," she said. "That's why I have made connecting West Virginia one of my top priorities."

Last week, Capito announced that T-Mobile will begin expanding cellular service in Lincoln County.

"I am thrilled to have helped make this exciting announcement possible, and I am confident it will create many new opportunities for West Virginia families and businesses," Capito said. "Greater connectivity in Lincoln County is a tremendous step forward, and I will continue working to deliver similar results for families and communities across the state."

"The Lincoln County Commission understands what this expanded cellular infrastructure means for the residents and businesses of our county," Lincoln County Commissioner K.K. Matthews said. "We would like to thank T- Mobile for its commitment to Lincoln County. We would also like to send out a very special thank you to Sen. Capito. The continued effort from her team to promote cellular infrastructure in Lincoln County has been greatly appreciated. Sen. Capito initiated the dialogue between the Lincoln County Commission and T- Mobile. This dialogue has cultivated the expansion of T-Mobile's footprint in Lincoln County."

"T-Mobile is always working to improve our network speed, coverage and reliability across the nation, and Lincoln County is no exception," said Tony Russo, vice president for Federal Legislative Affairs at T-Mobile. "We're proud to work with Sen. Capito on our 600 MHz ready network in West Virginia, and we'll continue our efforts to increase broadband access for West Virginians and consumers nationwide."

Capito spent much of June discussing broadband internet, including ways to increase access in rural communities.

Capito began by announcing additional support for the Gigabit Opportunity Act with Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., coming on as a co-sponsor. Coons serves as the ranking member of the Senate Financial Services and General Government subcommittee, which Capito chairs.

The legislation would speed up the development of high-speed internet in low-income and rural areas by attracting business investment through tax deferrals. "Gigabit Opportunity Zones" would be created, allowing companies to expense equipment costs in these areas.

Barriers to new investment would also be eliminated, which Capito argues would allow more competition between internet providers. In addition, state, county and municipal governments would be encouraged to adopt streamlined broadband laws to encourage zone creation.

"Internet access should be broadly available, no matter whether you live in a small town or a big city," she said. "This connectivity is essential to growing our nation's economy and, more particular, West Virginia's economy."

Capito said this is the time for America to close the "digital divide" between communities.

The senator addressed the importance of increasing internet access during the subcommittee's review of the Federal Communications Commission's proposed budget for the 2018 fiscal year.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin's Rural Wireless Access Act of 2017 passed unanimously through the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and last week the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) answered Manchin's call to advance the Mobility Fund II, which will provide $4.53 billion over 10 years to expand rural broadband service in rural and unserved areas.

"These votes are significant steps toward closing the broadband coverage gaps that exist in West Virginia," Manchin, D-W.Va., said. "Accurate and reliable coverage maps are necessary to close the digital divide in rural America and expand broadband deployment to across the Mountain State. These efforts represent critical progress toward delivering reliable broadband access to even our most rural and remote communities. I commend Chairman (Ajit) Pai and the entire FCC for working with me to ensure this funding increases broadband coverage in West Virginia."

Manchin said the Rural Wireless Act would expand broadband deployment in West Virginia by requiring the FCC to improve the way it collects broadband data.

"For too long, broadband coverage data has overstated coverage levels available to consumers and has not reflected the real-world broadband experience in rural America," he said.

The legislation now heads to the U.S. Senate floor, according to Manchin.

Recently, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey announced Frontier Communications has increased internet speeds for approximately 40 percent of customers impacted by its estimated $160 million settlement with West Virginia.

Frontier Communications entered into the settlement to resolve complaints about internet speeds provided to its customers, Morrisey said. He said the agreement, announced in December 2015, marked the largest, independently negotiated consumer protection settlement in West Virginia history.

"This agreement already has improved connectivity for thousands of West Virginians; however, significant work remains," Morrisey said. "My office will continue to monitor Frontier's progress to ensure compliance with the settlement's terms for the betterment of West Virginia."

The multi-faceted agreement requires Frontier to invest at least $150 million in capital expenditures to increase internet speeds across West Virginia and lower monthly rates for affected consumers.

Frontier, to date, has spent $83.9 million in capital expenditures, funds the company reports have increased internet speeds to 11,192 customers throughout West Virginia, according to the company's most recent quarterly report filed with the Attorney General's Office.

Christy Laxton, executive director at the Wyoming County Economic Development Authority, said improved broadband internet access and expanded cellphone signal availability would have a huge economic impact in the county.

"We have broadband in some areas of the county, but we need more," she said. "Cellphone service here is much worse. My office is right across the street from Pineville Elementary School, and we have no cell signal here."

Laxton says with the new Coalfields Expressway expected to be open to motorists in 2018, upgrades in broadband internet access and improved cell service could help the agency to bring businesses to properties available along the new highway.

"For any community, broadband access and cellphone access is important, especially when you are trying to attract new businesses and residents to your area," she said.

By:  Fred Pace
Source: Williamson Daily News