READER — Millions of dollars in federal grants and loans will support the development of high-speed broadband infrastructure in Tyler and Wetzel counties. 

Tyler County will receive $3.516 million, split between grant and loan funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect Program, to install 74 miles of new broadband fiberoptic cable, covering a service area of 26.13 square miles, according to releases from the USDA and the Tyler County Development Authority. It is expected to make direct broadband service, at upload and download speeds of up to 100 megabytes per second, available to as many as 3,291 county residents, the Tyler County release says. 

In Wetzel County, approximately $2.1 million in ReConnect grant funds will be matched with the same amount from the county and the Regional Economic Development Partnership (R.E.D.) to build a fiber-to-the-home network to serve a 48-square-mile service area that includes 1,909 households, five educational facilities, one health care center and nine critical community facilities. 

“Basically, it serves everything outside of New Martinsville,” said Wetzel County Commissioner Larry Lemon. “It’s just really a big step. We’ve been waiting for this to happen for quite a while.” 

The awards were announced by U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Utilities Administrator Chad Rupe during a ceremony Wednesday at Short Line School in Reader. 

“Both of these projects are providing critical communications investments in some truly rural areas of West Virginia,” Rupe said in the USDA release. “Through USDA’s ReConnect program, these counties will get access to the latest broadband technology, and that will have a positive economic impact for the farms, … small businesses and families that live in these communities."

Tyler County Development Authority Executive Director Eric Peters said the authority will own the system’s physical infrastructure and lease it to a private service provider. That provider is expected to be CityNet, which worked with the authority, the Mid-Ohio Valley Regional Planning and Development Council and planning consultants Thompson & Litton on the application. 

In the TCDA release, Peters said reliable broadband service is crucial to growing the county’s economy through existing and new businesses, as well as attracting new residents and keeping young people from leaving to pursue employment and entrepreneurship opportunities elsewhere. 

“It’s also important to our agribusinesses and family farms,” he said. “We’re running out of developable sites for new or expanding manufacturing businesses. We still have some good sites, but the demand will eventually be greater than the availability. Growing a modern digital sector as part of our local economy doesn’t require multiple flat acres. What it requires is digital infrastructure.” 

The Tyler County service area begins southeast of Sistersville at West Virginia 18 and Smith Ridge Road and continues south along West Virginia 18 and 23 to the Doddridge County line. It includes Middlebourne and the Pursley, Centerville, Alma and Shirley areas. 

“Even after this new system is in place, we still have plenty of work to do in order to reach more of our county population with reliable broadband service,” Peters said. “We consider this ReConnect project to be only the initial step toward making cost-competitive broadband available to more residents of Tyler County. This includes folks residing in areas of the county which are not at this time eligible under the ReConnect program. We have not forgotten about you.” 

Lemon said he expects the broadband project to benefit residents, businesses and educational and health care institutions in Wetzel County as well. 

“It’s just hard to fathom what a difference it’ll make,” he said. 

U.S. Sens. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said their offices assisted with the counties’ applications and they supported funding for the program in their roles on the Senate Appropriations Committee. 

“Wetzel and Tyler counties will now be able to ensure that rural communities in these counties have access to reliable broadband, no matter where people live,” Manchin said. “I will continue to advocate for funding that supports expanding reliable broadband access in rural areas.” 

“I fought hard for this funding and spoke directly with (Agriculture) Secretary (Sonny) Perdue, urging him to fund projects in West Virginia,” Capito said. “I am pleased that multiple applicants were successful in this year’s round and will continue to assist communities as they develop applications for next year.”

The ReConnect funding comes from $600 million approved by Congress in March 2018. USDA received 146 applications for the program between May 31 and July 12, 2019, seeking a combined $1.4 billion in funding. 

This month, Perdue announced USDA will make an additional $550 million in ReConnect funding available in 2020, with the application window open Jan. 31 to March 16.