High Hopes for ‘Capito Connect’ Rural Broadband Project in 2016

With each new year comes a renewed hope for a better way of life. Those of us who live and work in Preston County and in rural America have similar wants and desires as those living and working in urban America. But all too often, urban America where many more people and businesses thrive, is blessed with a state-of-the-art infrastructure rarely seen in other parts of the nation. A great example is access and availability to high speed broadband and Internet services.

In mid-2105, U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) introduced a program she called “Capito Connect.” The initiative calls for collaboration between government and the private sector, and this guidebook will serve as a resource for fostering partnerships that will help bridge the broadband gap in rural America, beginning with the Mountain State.

“In 2015,” Capito spokesperson Ashley Berrang explained, “we made significant strides to better connect West Virginia by raising awareness through her Capito Connect plan, focusing on the needs of our students, and boosting programs for broadband expansion in our rural communities.”

Beginning in March 2015, Sen. Capito first unveiled her broadband priority during her maiden speech on the Senate floor. From that point, she joined with 59 Senators on a letter to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler calling for a modernization of Universal Service Fund (USF) rules to ensure that Americans in rural communities have access to affordable broadband services.

Along with pressure on the FCC, Capito also joined a letter to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Co-Chairs of the Broadband Opportunity Council, requesting a detailed analysis of the various federal broadband initiatives that can be coordinated across agencies to bridge the digital divide and bring rural America into the 21st century.

According to Berrang, Sen. Capito also joined with Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) to introduce the Digital Learning Equity Act of 2015, which supports innovative ways to improve student access to the Internet and other digital learning tools outside the classroom in order to close the “homework gap.” This is particular importance to students who attend schools in rural locations. The advent of the Internet has become a new, powerful tool for students who have great distances to travel between home and school.

Soon after Sen. Capito announced a statewide “listening tour” where representatives from her office would visit all 55 counties. On July 27, Senator Capito’s Field Representative Chris Strovel led the open forum designed to encourage residents and county officials to discuss concerns they had with high speed broadband and internet access in here in Preston County. Representatives from business and local government attended.

July was a giant month for Senator Capito and her high speed broadband/Internet initiative for rural America. On July 16 the “Every Child Achieves Act of 2015” passed the Senate and House with the Digital Learning Equity Act included as an amendment. The next day, on July 17, Capito, as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, voted to pass an appropriations bill that supports rural broadband expansion by funding U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) agriculture, rural communities and cooperative conservation programs.

What followed was a serious of successful initiatives all benefiting the effort to improve high speed broadband and Internet availability. The more notable was a letter to letter FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, where Sen. Capito called on the FCC to provide a publically available list of accountability measures for proper use of the federal funds, and to explain what enforcement mechanisms will be implemented if carriers fail to meet their obligations under the Connect America Fund program.

All of this culminated in December with the passing of three key pieces of legislation, all supported by Capito, and all directly benefiting rural high speed broadband.

The first was the “Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act” or FAST Act.

“The FAST Act includes the Appalachian High-speed Broadband Deployment Initiative introduced by Sen. Capito earlier this year,” Berrang said. “This initiative, administered through the Appalachian Regional Commission, will increase affordable access to high speed Internet, support distance learning opportunities and the use of telehealth technologies, and promote business development.”

Then the “Every Student Succeeds Act” with an amendment added by Capito to improve student access to the Internet at home.

“The amendment authorizes a report on closing the homework gap for students without internet access at home as proposed in the Digital Learning Equity Act and allows funding in the bill to be used to close this technology gap,” Berrang added.

Finally, by mid-December the “Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2015” passed the Senate and House. This bill included funding to expand rural broadband through the Appalachian Regional Commission.

In 2016 the fight for better access to high speed broadband and Internet in rural West Virginia must continue. But there is no question, with Sen. Capito and the rest of the West Virginia Congressional delegation leading the effort the problem can be solved.

By:  John Dahlia
Source: The Preston County News & Journal