When it comes to the digital world, West Virginia remains one of the least-connected states.
This is a competitive and public disadvantage we can no longer afford to overlook. It impacts the future of education, business, safety and health care in our state.
The politics of broadband here are significant, and to date some elected officials, heavily influenced by Big Cable and Big Telecom, have figuratively moved at dial-up speed in terms of prioritizing the matter.
Last year, the West Virginia Legislature did not act on recommendations to invest state funds for construction of a “middle-mile,” which is the equivalent of an internet superhighway.
At the same time, our neighboring state implemented the “KentuckyWired” project, enabled by public-private partnership legislation that will advance millions in capital toward construction of their statewide fiber optic network.
Fortunately this year, the West Virginia House of Delegates has approved a measure that could spur some improvements, under the current terms of House Bill 3093.
This potential law, advanced last week to the state Senate for consideration, would enable up to three cities and counties to collaborate for purposes of building a high-speed internet service.
It would also formally allow nonprofit internet co-ops to establish where at least 20 or more rural businesses and families cooperate, letting them maximize federal grant funds that are readily available for such purposes.
The legislation would also eliminate a tactic being used by some companies to slow access to telephone poles from competitors working to expand fiber optics.
“Industries of the Future” author Alec Ross recently visited his Charleston hometown to lecture about innovation. He emphasized that expanded data access is key to West Virginia's participation in the information age and vital for retaining young people.
Moving West Virginia from worst to first on this issue is not something that will happen overnight, but even incremental changes can lead to results.
In “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg accounts the significance of minor decisions, not only those made by individuals, but also those of institutions.
Minor decisions that are positive function as a “small win,” he says.
“Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win. Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people bigger achievements are within reach.”
West Virginia is in the midst of a budget crisis, but this bill is revenue neutral and simply eliminates artificial barriers to competition, allowing this market to be expanded by entrepreneurs not just on Wall Street, but also those residing and working on Main Streets.
While the Legislature may not be willing to invest state funds for broadband expansion at present, it should at least empower local communities and small businesses willing to take initiative, and over time this small action could have lasting effects.
Jason Keeling is a public relations professional and communications instructor at Marshall University.