In 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made steps toward rural electrification that ultimately provided the infrastructure needed to supply America’s remote areas with “central station electric service.”
In 2021, many countryside locations are suffering from a lack of broadband internet service. Perhaps now Rural Technification is in order.
West Virginia elected officials, community members, businesses owners, school officials and other stakeholders were already focused on the lack of reliable internet post-pandemic, but COVID-19 brought home the fact that the Mountain State is nowhere near the level needed to teach school children or to operate a business even in the best of times.
Locally, the newly-minted Greenbrier County Broadband Council held a rally in downtown Lewisburg on June 4, calling on everyone to support expansion efforts. Acting under the authority of the Greenbrier County Commission, the council will focus on the best way to acquire funding.
“What can you do? We’ve got several things we would like you to do to help us out and enhance broadband in Greenbrier County,” explained Sen. Stephen Baldwin, one of the council’s organizers. “One is to fill out the [Broadband Council] survey. … It’s going to be making the rounds for the next couple of weeks. … That’s the point of all of this, to get better maps. Right now the federal government thinks that broadband in southern West Virginia is just fine. We know that’s not true. It’s not fine. We are tremendously underserved, but we have to prove that. … If you can fill out the survey, help us get a map together, your business and your home, then it’s going to put us in a better position [for federal and state funds and grants].”
That survey can now be found at greenbriercounty.net at the link under the invitation to, “Please take this survey to help Greenbrier County improve Broadband Internet Access for all residents and be entered to win a brand-new kayak!”
During the rally, Greenbrier County Superintendent of Schools Jeff Bryant explained how the lack of internet access has hurt students and teachers, particularly during the pandemic.
The rally also featured other community stakeholders including Ashley Vickers with the Chamber of Commerce, local Americorp’s Jack Stanton, Lewisburg Mayor Beverly White, City Administrator Misty Hill, and cheerleaders from Greenbrier West High School and Eastern Greenbrier Middle School.
During the rally, Scot Mitchell, CEO of Robert C. Byrd Clinic, addressed how the pandemic and the healthcare system brought to light inefficiencies in internet service.
Read more about the rally written by WVDN reporter Bobby Bordelon at wvdn.com/16863/.
In an April 20 press release, U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito, members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, explained the need for U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration (EDA) funding for broadband as applied to Webster County.
“Delivering reliable, affordable broadband to every West Virginian is a top priority of mine, and I am pleased EDA is investing in this project to expand broadband access to families and businesses in Webster County,” Manchin said. “Broadband access is essential for West Virginians and businesses to compete in the 21st century, and I look forward to witnessing the growth this project will bring to Webster County. The EDA remains a strong partner for West Virginia, and I will continue to work with the EDA and other agencies to bring broadband access to every community in the Mountain State.”
“High-speed internet service is essential in the 21st century,” Capito said. “West Virginia communities need access to this invaluable tool in order to provide opportunity and educate the next generation, which is why I have been so adamant about finalizing this investment for Webster County. While we have made significant progress in expanding broadband infrastructure through my Capito Connect plan and local efforts, a lot of work remains to be done. I will continue to be a strong advocate for strengthening broadband service in West Virginia, and help connect our communities with the federal and state resources they need to bring reliable internet access into our homes, businesses, and schools.”
Manchin has been requesting speed-tests since 2016 and continues to solicit them as, “Without access to the internet, citizens can’t learn, apply for jobs, launch new businesses, or become members of society who can give back to their communities. The sad fact is that many places in West Virginia simply do not have access to reliable broadband and the lack of access affects West Virginians every day. Back in 2015, the FCC released a coverage map that stated 99.9% of Americans had wireless coverage. I knew then what I know now: That is just plain wrong. That’s why I’m asking all West Virginians to submit your internet speed-tests, so we can prove to the FCC that our broadband coverage is well below the stated coverage. So far, your efforts have helped the FCC acknowledge that our providers are overstating their coverage, but we must continue to show where and how widespread the lack of broadband coverage is in West Virginia.”
Speed-test can be submitted at www.manchin.senate.gov/speedtest.
Mountains — although valued for aesthetic reasons — caused complications when installing and maintaining the important infrastructure once needed to supply electricity, now it causes the same troubles for broadband.
Capito serves on the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Broadband and Telecommunications. Capito can be seen in a YouTube video of a June 23 subcommittee hearing titled “Building Resilient Networks” where she addressed the state’s terrain and the need for resilient networks for emergency response during events like June 24, 2016, flood.
As residents and business owners return to life in the new normal, local, state and federal governments are addressing this lack of technology, but what are the potential problems toward achieving high-speed internet in every hill, hollow and valley housing a person seeking to earn a living, or simply to communicate with the rest of the world?
On the federal level, the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury was authorized to handle this task, and has issued an interim final rule to implement the Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund and the Coronavirus Local Fiscal Recovery Fund, established under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). A portion of these funds is set to provide broadband infrastructure. The provisions in the Treasury’s interim final rule were made effective as of May 17, with a public comment deadline set for July 16.
“The COVID–19 public health emergency has underscored the importance of universally available, high-speed, reliable, and affordable broadband coverage as millions of Americans rely on the internet to participate in, among critical activities, remote school, healthcare, and work,” notes the Treasury. “Recognizing the need for such connectivity, the ARPA provides funds to state, territorial, local, and tribal governments to make necessary investments in broadband infrastructure.”
Utilizing data from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) Internet Use Survey, the Treasury determined the results “highlighted the growing necessity of broadband in daily lives through its analysis of NTIA, noting that Americans turn to broadband internet access service for every facet of daily life including work, study, and healthcare. With increased use of technology for daily activities and the movement by many businesses and schools to operating remotely during the pandemic, broadband has become even more critical for people across the country to carry out their daily lives.”
This data also underscored the fact that “tens of millions of Americans live in areas where there is no broadband infrastructure that provides download speeds greater than 25 Mbps and upload speeds of 3 Mbps. By contrast … many households use upload and download speeds of 100 Mbps to meet their daily needs. Even in areas where broadband infrastructure exists, broadband access may be out of reach for millions of Americans because it is unaffordable, as the United States has some of the highest broadband prices in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).”
This is certainly true of many West Virginia internet users, plus the “disparities in availability as well; historically, Americans living in territories and tribal lands, as well as rural areas, have proportionately lacked sufficient broadband infrastructure.”
The Treasury also states that “rapidly growing demand has, and will likely continue to, quickly outpace infrastructure capacity, a phenomenon acknowledged by various states around the country that have set scalability requirements to account for this anticipated growth in demand. The interim final rule provides that eligible investments in broadband are those that are designed to provide services meeting adequate speeds and are provided to unserved and underserved households and businesses.”
Recognizing the wide range of varied broadband infrastructure needs across the country, “the interim final rule provides award recipients with flexibility to identify the specific locations within their communities to be served and to otherwise design the project.”
Addressing issues common in the Mountain State where “it would not be practicable for a project to deliver such service speeds because of the geography, topography, or excessive costs associated with such a project … the affected project would be expected to be designed to deliver, upon project completion, service that reliably meets or exceeds 100 Mbps download and between at least 20 Mbps and 100 Mbps upload speeds and be scalable to a minimum of 100 Mbps symmetrical for download and upload speeds.”
The Treasure notes that “Bids submitted as part of the FCC in its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), established to support the construction of broadband networks in rural communities across the country, are given priority if they offer faster service, with the service offerings of 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload being included in the ‘above baseline’ performance tier set by the FCC.
The Broadband Infrastructure Program (BBIP) of the Department of Commerce, which provides federal funding to deploy broadband infrastructure to eligible service areas of the country also prioritizes projects designed to provide broadband service with a download speed of not less than 100 Mbps and an upload speed of not less than 20 Mbps.”
Recipients of the federal funds are “also encouraged to prioritize investments in fiber optic infrastructure where feasible, as such advanced technology enables the next generation of application solutions for all communities. The Treasury also encourages recipients to prioritize support for broadband networks owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments, nonprofits, and co-operatives — providers with less pressure to turn profits and with a commitment to serving entire communities.”
Initial steps have been taken. Money was offered. In-depth questions are asked. Technicalities are being considered. And rules have been established. So, how long until we accomplish the goal of reliable broadband? Rural electrification took 25 years to reach an “almost 97%” rate. Perhaps by submitting speed-tests, filling out surveys and supporting broadband initiatives, rural technification can be completed within a much shorter timeframe.