MORGANTOWN — U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., hosted two roundtable discussions on rural broadband issues in Morgantown and Kingwood Monday. Federal Communications Commission Commissioner Mignon Clyburn joined Capito for the discussions.
The first roundtable took place at the WVU Reed College of Media Innovation Center in Morgantown. Capito and Clyburn met with eight professors, students and others who were focused on the importance of broadband connectivity in rural states.
“Our challenge is how do we prevent rural America from becoming digital deserts,” Dr. John Campbell, associate provost of Information Technology, Chief Technology Officer asked.
“If we don’t address some of these digital deserts, the next generation of workforce is going to be left behind.”
Campbell’s reference of the term “digital desert” became the main theme of the first roundtable discussion.
According to the broadband monitoring service, BroadbandNow, West Virginia ranks 45th in broadband connectivity with 28 percent of the state’s population underserved.
Both Capito and Clyburn mainly listened and added some insight on potential solutions.
“Awareness is key,” Clyburn said. “What we have done through mapping tools and other types of educational interaction is showing America and showing West Virginia where the digital gaps are.”
Clyburn and Capito both said the government must take the lead when providing community and business incentives and grants as well as promoting public-private partnerships.
“I’m an appropriator so I want to help her (Commissioner Clyburn) deliver the regulatory framework that we can have this grow and she’s helping me to understand that West Virginia is not alone,” Capito said.
Commissioner Clyburn agreed, adding the high cost of bringing broadband to rural locations in North Central West Virginia and the nation is far less than the cost of doing nothing.
“If we do not invest in our technology infrastructure and our broadband, then the price in the end will be too high. We cannot afford to leave our communities behind.”
MBA graduate business student Matthew Brumley was one of the eight at the roundtable. Before that, he was part owner of an application development business that made custom, mobile applications. He spoke mainly about how his tech start-up went out of business when they attempted to serve smaller clients.
“We had to overcome the hurdle of dealing with businesses that were in rural areas,” Brumley said. “So we had to figure out how to create applications that run on broadband and run off broadband.”
He explained how, ultimately, his company’s solutions were too costly for smaller clients in North Central West Virginia.
“We had to figure out how to engineer and build a system on an iPad that works without broadband which costed thousands of more dollars,” Brumley added. “The economic costs are real.”
Capito and Clyburn traveled to Kingwood’s Preston Memorial Hospital for the second roundtable discussion. This one focused squarely on providing better medical service via internet and broadband connection to those living in rural areas.
“What I heard is a need for us to work collaboratively,” Clyburn said. “We need to be in the same page when providing rules and regulations and support.”
Capito added she has joined with 13 members of the U.S. Senate who represent other rural states across the nation to find ways to help rural broadband deployment. One example is the recent, bipartisan legislation she and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., introduced on Sept. 28.
According to a press release from Senator Capito’s office, the Broadband Connections for Rural Opportunities Program Act, S.3408, would establish a new program that combines grants and loans to help finance broadband infrastructure projects in rural and tribal areas.
“So were trying to be more creative using all different federal agencies to partner with local, private developers and healthcare facilities,” Capito said.
Specifically, for Preston Memorial Hospital, CEO Melissa Lockwood said her biggest challenge when it comes to internet and broadband connectivity is happening at its Preston Memorial Family Care center in Fellowsville.
“Just trying to get adequate service to our Fellowsville office so they can connect to our electronic health records and be a part of the hospital record system has been a challenge,” Lockwood said.
Both Capito and Clyburn said they hope to incorporate the new ideas and concerns they learned from both discussions on Monday.
“We are working to bring attention to this locally and leverage the things we learned nationally to bring about a better and more efficient infrastructure,” Clyburn said.