Wider broadband access is good news for the state

August 31, 2018

A combination of rough terrain and a relatively small population has made West Virginia a less-than-attractive market for companies to build broadband networks — and a prime example of the digital divide.

But some recent developments suggest that the state’s relative lack of access to broadband internet service may make a turn for the better. Two recent announcements foster that optimism.

Last week, the Federal Communications Commission announced that three internet companies will receive about $12 million combined in federal funding to provide broadband access to West Virginia communities lacking it. The money comes from the FCC’s Connect America Fund Phase II auction, and will go toward expanding internet access in 7,962 locations, sorted by census blocks, throughout West Virginia, according to a report by the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

The purpose of the funding, which will be released over a 10-year period, is to provide quality internet access to rural areas that providers wouldn’t normally enter because of cost.

That’s good news for many areas in the state, although a look at which counties will receive the most attention suggests that southern West Virginia — an area hit hard by the decline of coal in recent years — will receive little help from this most recent round of funding. Access to broadband internet service is vital for economic development, and that economically depressed region of the state could certainly use more help.

But another announcement earlier in August portends some assistance for that part of the state.

Houston-based Skylark Wireless announced that it will receive a 2018 Microsoft Airband Initiative Grant to provide “affordable” broadband service to underserved communities in rural West Virginia. The CEO of Skylark told the Gazette-Mail that the company’s ultimate goal is to provide broadband to 10,000 homes and businesses in the Mingo County area through TV white spaces, in which unused broadcast channels between active ones are accessed for internet service. The improved service also could reach into other areas, such as Logan County, in years to come.

Improved access to broadband internet is sorely needed in the Mountain State. A report compiled by U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., last year noted that West Virginia ranks 47th in broadband connectivity with 30 percent of its residents not having access. In rural areas of the state, that number spikes to 48 percent.

That lack of access hinders economic growth, as well as limits health care and educational opportunities.

The increased investment announced last month is a good sign, although residents should recognize that it won’t happen overnight. In some areas, it will likely be several years before these new projects are completed. However, some significant progress appears to be forthcoming.

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