As a West Virginia resident involved with activities and friends all across the state, I am familiar with the economic and personal consequences of inadequate internet access. A year of research on this issue has convinced me that the primary internet providers in our state are selling us obsolete technology at high prices as they focus their expansion into more lucrative, urban markets.
The need for broadband is not debatable, as this “information highway” is already extremely important in our lives, and critically important to the businesses we hope to attract. A recent survey conducted by the state Development Office found 68 percent of state small businesses reported a need for better broadband. That WV is a challenging environment in which to offer broadband is also unquestionable. But how did our state end up with so many areas without service or with inadequate service? How can we address West Virginia’s broadband shortcomings so that we can diversity our economy, better educate our children, and provide high-quality medical care to our residents? Who can we trust to take us from our current internet status — nearly last among the United States and behind many foreign nations — to obtain high-speed broadband service at affordable prices?
Several bills have been introduced in this year’s Legislature for the purpose of improving broadband service, and one, House Bill 3093, offers real hope. HB 3093 just passed the House, receiving 97 “Yes” votes out of the possible 100. It was the subject of a public hearing that enumerated the many ways this bill will encourage competition by authorizing fiber optic cable on existing utility poles, mini-trenching for fiber on public highways, and authorizing cities and citizen co-ops to seek federal and other sources to increase broadband access and service. Another feature of the bill is the requirement that broadband providers must deliver the service they advertise!
There are two opponents to HB 3093, Frontier Communications and some, but not all, of the cable companies — the providers that most of us must have been relying on to provide internet access. These firms appear more interested in protecting their near-monopolies and maintaining the status quo than addressing the problems HB 3093 would solve. Cable companies object to what they call “overbuilding the networks” within their existing footprint, yet they have not expanded into currently unserved or underserved areas and seem content to ignore reported needs of W.Va. small business. Neither do they recognize the role they could play with co-ops in leveraging federal grant programs to expand coverage. What they really oppose is competition — competition which would benefit all business and individual consumers with lower prices and improved bandwidth. Research comparing service and price demonstrates that competition results in greater bandwidth at lower prices, in some cases at a price reduction greater than 30%. In short, they want protection from competition without allowing any regulation of rates they charge.
Frontier’s solution seems to be to use federal subsidies as a quick fix, while continuing to address today’s technology requirements over yesterday’s copper infrastructure, which cannot carry sufficient bandwidth to meet the needs of our citizens and our economy. The phone and cable companies do not appear to have the desire or resources to meet our current needs, much less to address future demand for broadband as we attempt to grow and diversify West Virginia’s economy. Almost unanimously, the House of Delegates voted in favor of HB 3093 to address this problem and invite competition. The question now is in the Senate.
Several years ago, West Virginia received one of the largest federal grants in the country to meet our broadband challenges. Rather than building infrastructure to encourage competition, as the grant promised, our major phone company is alleged to have used the grant to build a network that shuts out competition, and allows them to impose fees for access to this taxpayer-funded fiber without any overview or restriction. Many of us in remote areas have fiber that could provide fast internet immediately adjacent to our property, but Frontier shows no interest in making reasonably priced access to it available. Calls to Frontier for information to access this taxpayer funded fiber are unproductive. Despite assurances that this grant would fund major service improvements for thousands of West Virginians, $126 million of public funding appears to have resulted in little new or improved service as WV still ranks at or near the bottom of every broadband category. The grant debacle is currently the subject of a lawsuit in federal court.
When the government chooses to rely on the private sector to utilize federal and state funding to overcome a challenge such as broadband access represents, the success of the partnership is wholly dependent on selecting the right private partner and providing the necessary oversight to insure that party acts in the state interest. This is critical. W.Va. can no longer rely upon the providers who have failed us in the past. We cannot expect them to fix the problems of their own design. West Virginia desperately needs the competition that HB 3093 will encourage. Needed are networks that will enable competition to lower costs for businesses and individual users, and will provide better service with increased bandwidth and speed.
This week the state Senate should pass HB 3093 without amendment or delay and send it to Governor Justice, who can make its features and promise available as a major tool for development and jobs that 68% of WV small businesses are requesting.
Ronald Pearson, of Charleston, is a retired U.S. bankruptcy court judge.