Roughly 200,000 homes in West Virginia that do not have adequate access to high-speed internet may now be getting some help through a new state broadband initiative that boasts over $1 billion in project funding.
On Wednesday, Oct. 20, the West Virginia Press Association held a roundtable discussion with Gov. Jim Justice and representatives from the West Virginia Department of Economic Development including Secretary Mitch Carmichael; Director Kelly Collins Workman; Broadband and Economic Development Specialist Vic Sprouse and GIS Coordinator Jamie Hoffman to discuss this new initiative.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic forced many of us to work from home and kept children out of school, state officials and citizen leaders were discussing ways to get high-speed internet into the hills and over the mountains of our state.
The high cost of creating broadband infrastructure prevented much of this from happening. Now, however, Justice has announced that the state will be using $236 million from the state broadband initiative, $362 million in Federal Communications Commission funding and $120 million from other state and federal sources to finally get this infrastructure built. These funds are expected to be allocated by fall 2022 and will be managed through the newly created Broadband Development Fund, which completed legislation as House Bill 339 during the special legislative session.
One of the main topics of the roundtable discussion centered around inaccurate Federal Communications Commission (FCC) internet availability maps. These maps, which have historically relied upon internet provider coverage information and census block-style address information, often state that a location has internet access when it does not. This has prevented the state from receiving much-needed federal funding for broadband development. Therefore, one of the first goals of the new state initiative has been ensuring that every address is correctly identified as having no internet access or inadequate internet access (identified as having download speeds of less than 25 mbps and upload speeds of less than 3 mbps).
The mapping process has been ongoing for about two years and is coming close to completion, according to Hoffman. Additionally, the state has been asking residents to complete a speed test at broadband.wv.gov to accurately pinpoint locations that are underserved.
“The core issue with broadband mapping before we began our comment period stemmed from the FCC and their over- exaggeration on who’s served and who’s not served,” Hoffman said.
Workman added that the state has moved from generalized census-block data to address level data to create an accurate map of West Virginia homes without internet access. To do that, she said they have been utilizing the E-911 address database and asking for additional carrier information when needed.
Justice then said that he wanted to explain the initiative to make it understandable.
“Where we are today is a mess unbelievable,” Justice said. “That’s all there is to it. Just a flat mess. Any way you cut it—a mess.” He then said that he was told in order to fix the mess, a lot of money needed to be invested into infrastructure.
“Now, we’ve put real money into it and we’re gonna make it from a mess to much, much, much better,” Justice said. “After we make it much, much better, if there is anybody that we’ve left out, we are gonna have to come back and put a few more bucks into it, and we are going to have to get them too. That’s the whole plan.”
According to information provided in a press release from the governor’s office, primary funding sources for the initiative have been described as follows:
-The FCC Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF)
This program offers competitive grant funding to internet service providers who extend infrastructure to unserved areas of the state.
-The West Virginia State Broadband Initiative
This initiative will use American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and state-budget funding to create four competitive award programs for broadband projects including the Line Extension Advancement and Development (LEAD) program, the GigReady Initiative, the Major Broadband Project Strategies (MBPS) and the Wireless Internet Networks (WIN) program.
The LEAD program will award competitive grants to internet service providers to expand existing fiber and cable networks throughout the state. The GigReady Initiative will provide matching state funds for local governments that develop projects to pool their broadband investments. The MBPS program focuses on large-scale multi-county projects that require additional resources to achieve rapid implementation. The WIN program will use $10 million in state general revenue funds to expand and improve existing wireless internet networks.
-Other federal and state funding sources
Other existing funding sources, primarily federal, are expected to contribute at least $120 million to broadband development in West Virginia over the next five years. These include the Federal Communications Commission, the United States Department of Agriculture, the Appalachian Regional Commission, and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
In response to a question during the roundtable discussion that this funding actually goes toward helping those who have no high-speed internet access, instead of going into areas that already have it as has happened in the past, Carmichael assured that the funds will only be used to provide high-speed internet access to those who do not have it.
“Along the way, we will stub our toe somewhere,” Justice added. “This mapping is so complex and so difficult it’s unbelievable.” He stated that he hopes residents will hear the message and that ultimately “we will be so right because this is dollars for the underserved . . . but overwhelmingly we are gonna knock it out of the park right now.”
For more information, visit wv.broadband.gov.