As a small, rural state, West Virginia faces challenges to economic growth and stability, but probably none more daunting that the lack of broadband internet service.
The issues, long talked about and partially addressed, linger on seven years after the federal government allocated $126.3 million in stimulus money to improve the state’s broadband network.
What happened from there has been controversial, with various people and companies sparring over whether the funding was used properly. Lawsuits have been filed and the arguments continue. And as we’ve editorialized before, the oversight of the program was lacking.
So seven years later, far too much of the state remains without quality high-speed access. And some areas lack any access at all.
Credit state leaders and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., for trying to right this damaging wrong.
Capito has championed her “Capito Connect Plan” and has gained the support of lawmakers from other rural areas. She has established the Senate Broadband Caucus and used her influence to bring West Virginia’s and other small state’s plight in front of the key decision makers in Washington.
On the state level, lawmakers passed comprehensive legislation aimed at fixing the broadband issues. It gave more authority and oversight to the broadband council and opened expansion efforts to co-ops, hoping to bring together small businesses, citizens and agencies to attract federal grant money. It also set up a loan guarantee program to encourage internet providers to expand into areas lacking service.
Part of the problem was that record-keeping in terms of establishing who had sufficient broadband service was lacking. The broadband council has improved tracking of service and began targeting areas that need assistance.
That has helped Capito and others in the fight for funding, with Capito able to snag $3 million from the USDA to boost service in Upshur, Randolph and Barbour counties.
The state’s Development Office is more involved, as well, seeking money from the Appalachian Regional Commission to help extend service in Clay, Lincoln, McDowell, Mingo and Webster counties, some of the state’s most rural areas.
The focused effort is beginning to pay dividends, according to Broadband Enhancement Council Chairman Robert Hinton. He told The State Journal’s Rusty Marks that there is positive traction.
“We’re making headway. We’re doing the right things. It’s like a full-court press.”
After seven years and what can only be described as lackluster results, the new council’s approach and focused efforts by state and federal lawmakers is welcomed.
There is no question, the broadband issues have held West Virginia back. It’s time to arm economic development specialists with the proper tools. And none are more important than broadband access.