Broadband high-speed internet access is widely recognized as an essential service in today’s society. Yet, a significant gap – often referred to as the “digital divide” – still exists between people with access to technology and those without it. Many areas of rural West Virginia remain without broadband because existing providers have made business decisions not to improve or extend Internet access.
Despite hundreds of millions of dollars in investments by the Mountain State’s broadband providers over the past decade, West Virginia continues to have the lowest average connection speeds in the nation, as well as the lowest 4 Mbps adoption rate in the nation, according to a 2016 report by leading global tech firm Akamai.
The West Virginia Legislature, with overwhelming bipartisan support, recently took a significant step to support the deployment of broadband communications to the state’s hardest-to-serve and costliest areas with its passage of House Bill 3093
The legislation establishes broadband enhancement and expansion policies through innovative solutions that support the West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council’s aggressive state broadband development strategy focused on broadband penetration, coverage and usage.
More than 75 years ago, non-profit, consumer-owned utilities took the lead in extending electric utility service to the farms, businesses and households of rural America. Today, that same cooperative model can serve as an important tool to empower rural communities in efforts to expand broadband service to unserved areas.
House Bill 3093 allows for the establishment of non-profit cooperative service models to spur development of high-speed broadband in rural, unserved areas of West Virginia.
Broadband cooperatives are a key part of an aggressive rural broadband deployment strategy in Minnesota, where Governor Mark Dayton’s (D) ambitious Border-To-Border Broadband Program to boost high-speed Internet access in rural communities – above a state established goal for Internet speed – includes investments and partnership by telecommunications providers such as Frontier Communications.
Tennessee, like West Virginia, has passed legislation within recent weeks to allow the state’s rural electric cooperatives to step in to fill the broadband void in Tennessee’s rural communities, under legislation championed by Governor Bill Haslam (R). The Volunteer State presently ranks 29th in broadband access and more than a third of the state does not have access.
House Bill 3093 recognizes that in order to reach the underserved and unserved communities in West Virginia, the state must avoid the unnecessary cost of replicating infrastructure that already exists and embrace many diverse ways to encourage and facilitate broadband deployment where it has not yet occurred.
House Bill 3093, like similar pieces of broadband legislation introduced in states across the nation, has encountered telecommunications industry opposition, with organizations suggesting it creates unfair business environments and that providers already offer those services in states.
With West Virginia ranked 48th in broadband access, we must take advantage of all the tools available to close our growing technology gap with surrounding states, and to support the development of reliable, affordable high-speed broadband services that connect all communities in our state with educational and economic opportunity.
“How unfair can it be for our retirees, rural communities, to not be connected with the world like everybody else is,” said Governor Jim Justice during his 2016 gubernatorial campaign, when asked by AARP West Virginia if he would support legislation that seeks to expand the availability of high-speed broadband internet to all households in West Virginia. “Everybody thought middle mile; I would think last mile. I mean, that’s what it has to be. It’s just that simple.”
Governor Justice, we couldn’t agree with you more. That’s why it is critical that you sign House Bill 3093 into law.
Gaylene Miller is the state director for AARP West Virginia.