LANSING — Business owners, residents and county officials met with Federal Communications Commissioner Ajit Pai and U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., Tuesday to share the frustrations they feel living, working and driving tourism in a state that ranks 48th in broadband accessibility.
Just north of the New River Gorge Bridge, the image chosen for the official West Virginia State Quarter, Lansing is home to rafting companies and substantial residential development. But lack of broadband access is hindering growth and stability.
On Auction House Road in Lansing, Crosiers Sanitary Services fights to stay abreast of competitors, explained owner Ron Crosier.
"Competitors in neighboring states are using technology we own but cannot utilize," he explained. "We bought the commercial property 10 years ago with the expectation that broadband would be coming very soon and put us on even footing with our competitors, and that just hasn't come to pass."
His business is just 1,500 feet from an existing high speed cable.
His competitors have accountants who work on servers remotely and communicate and track their trucks on their routes.
"In a logistics business with routes that change several times a day, being able to determine where your equipment is is very important. We end up calling them, which distracts them from their work, and we don't want them to answer the phone while they are driving," he explained.
Software developer Chris Whisenhunt moved to Fayetteville four years ago where he was able to work from home. Without realizing he would not have high speed internet, he purchased a home in Lansing and must make weekly trips in to Fayetteville, use his phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot or rely on others help him accomplish tasks online.
At times he contacts coworkers in California or London to have them drag and drop a file or upload something for him.
Providers estimate it will cost him $33,000 to connect his home to the wire terminus, a distant of 100 yards.
Had he known, he would not have purchased the Lansing home, he said.
"We are in limbo. It is extremely frustrating. It is a constant problem," he shared.
David Hartvigsen, CEO of Adventures on the Gorge where Tuesday's roundtable was held, said he understands broadband is needed for businesses owners, but sees it as a larger, statewide economic issue.
"The state is really struggling with tough economic times, and tourism has to be part of that solution. (Broadband) is an important part of what tourism needs in terms of infrastructure," he said.
Heidi Prior with ACE Adventure Resort said many of the 8,000 visitors she sees each year find it frustrating they can't get Wi-Fi, especially when they have stayed connected traveling to other states like Alaska.
"It destroys our image as a progressive, fun place to go," she said.
But even municipalities with access to broadband services struggle with internet speed.
Fayetteville Pies and Pints General Manager Angie Bond said the restaurant is able to use an online service to text patrons when their tables are ready on busy days. This allows them to visit area stores while waiting.
Sometimes the internet is so slow the text won't go through. At other times, so many people are online in the area at one time that the restaurant's POS (point of sale) system crashes.
Others in attendance stressed the need for more service providers to make pricing more competitive and called for accountability to ensure federal funds providers receive are being used to increase access in rural communities.
Fayette Commission President Matt Wender noted that Frontier Communications should be investing $150 million to increase broadband speeds in West Virginia as part of a settlement in a lawsuit filed in 2014 by Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.
Wender said the commission has had presentations from Frontier about its plans, but has not seen any benefits locally.
He asked if the FCC could monitor the provider and ensure funds are spent appropriately.
Capito said holding service providers accountable is something that can be addressed through the Senate Broadband Caucus, a bipartisan group she launched earlier this month.
FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai said he is currently working on streamlining the permitting process to decrease the cost of adding service lines or cell towers, which will open up the industry and allow smaller carriers to compete.
The stories he heard Tuesday will position him to submit better proposals to the commission to consider, he said.
"To me, it is a matter of fundamental fairness. If we truly believe that every American deserves an equal opportunity, in the 21st century that increasingly means that every American should have high speed internet," he said. "That is my goal."