Sen. Shelley Moore Capito has been pushing to expand broadband access to rural communities for years.
In 2015, she launched “Capito Connect,” her initiative to deploy federal investments in broadband, without the government mismanagement, waste and fraud the state had suffered in previous years.
But in the heart of once-booming coal country, Capito estimates that despite recent developments up to 25% of residents do not have reliable access to fast Internet, an unthinkable prospect in more urban parts of the nation.
Other parts of the population have spotty access that is frequently cut off.
“We’ve realized during this pandemic that telehealth, tele-education telecommuting -- these are all essentials to being able to cope really to keep a job going, to keep education going, to keep health care going,” she said.
Capito believes the “digital divide” is what’s keeping West Virginia, now one of the nation’s poorest states, from transforming into the latest tech hub.
Just last week, Virgin Hyperloop, a transportation technology company, picked the state for a $500 million certification center and test track for billionaire Richard Branson’s super high-speed travel system.
The hyperloop system will be designed to whisk floating pods packed with passengers and cargo through vacuum tubes at 600 miles an hour (966 kmph) or faster.
Construction is expected to begin in 2022 on the site of a former coal mine in Tucker and Grant counties with safety certification by 2025 and commercial operations by 2030, the company said.
While West Virginia is getting its fair share in allocations from the Economic Development Administration (EDA) for broadband expansion, Capito says much of the funding is still tied up in red tape.
She pointed to Webster County, an extremely remote region in the state. The county was awarded a $250,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) to expand broadband access over a year ago, and yet the project has remained in limbo.
“The hamstrings of how you get this government grant are really holding this back. We could’ve had this deployed by now if we just had a little common sense,” the senator said.
In 2018, the West Virginia Development Office set aside $3.2 million in ARC funding for the agency’s broadband initiative. The funding was limited to ARC-designated distressed communities, or those who suffered the hardest blow from the downturn of the coal industry. Among them was Webster.
In May, Capito introduced the bipartisan- E-Bridge Act, with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., to remove obstacles to broadband projects actually receiving funding from EDA grants. It would prompt public-private partnerships by giving communities more flexibility in complying with their funding match requirements.
Capito in 2018 implored Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to bring rural Americans, particularly in West Virginia, internet connectivity. The Facebook CEO promised to follow up and in 2019 made good on his promise.
The social media platform brought its first fiber infrastructure program in North America right to West Virginia.
The high-capacity fiber optic cable network is part of a network infrastructure project expanding from Virginia to Ohio, with 275 miles stretching across the southeastern region of the Mountain State, the state’s “least served area.” Construction is expected to last 18 to 24 months.