Numbers in a federal report about West Virginians who have access to broadband internet services are “not even close to being correct,” the chairman of the state’s broadband council said Thursday.
The Federal Communications Commission released the report last week. It claims, among other things, that seven West Virginia counties have 100-percent access to a fixed broadband connection.
The report could hurt West Virginia’s chances to get money to help improve internet speeds, said Rob Hinton, chairman of the West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council, which oversees broadband expansion and access in the state.
The FCC’s 2018 Broadband Deployment Report says 82.2 percent of West Virginians have access to fixed, or non-mobile, broadband internet speeds.
The counties the report says has 100 percent fixed broadband access are Barbour, Gilmer, Harrison, Lewis, Marion, Randolph and Upshur. Other counties weren’t too far off from that, according to the report, with Braxton County at 99.9 percent and Monongalia County at 98 percent broadband access.
The FCC’s report relies on Form 477 data, which are filed by broadband providers, from December of 2016. Form 477 submissions show census blocks where providers offer a certain level of connection speed to at least one location. So a provider may not offer that service throughout the entire census block, the FCC’s website says.
In an email, an FCC spokesman said this criteria could “somewhat overstate deployment,” adding that census blocks are typically larger in rural areas.
Hinton said Form 477 data isn’t expected to be a flawless measure of broadband access, but added that he thinks the data in the 2018 report is exaggerated.
“To me, this goes beyond having inaccuracies,” Hinton said. “It’s just disappointing. That’s all it is. At what point next year are they going to say West Virginia has 100 percent coverage?”
Hinton said data the council has received from participants in its West Virginia Internet Speed Test shows roughly half of those tested have connection speeds of less than 10 megabits per second download speeds. The FCC classifies a broadband connection as 25 megabits per second download speeds and 3 megabits per second upload speeds.
The FCC’s report has consequences beyond simply painting an inaccurate picture of state internet access, Hinton said.
When state agencies and organizations apply for funding related to broadband deployment, those providing the funds will question a project’s necessity if the entire county supposedly has broadband access, according to Hinton.
“It’s shameful,” Hinton said. “It’s just disappointing that moving forward, this is the kind of data that will dictate where we can invest infrastructure dollars.”
Last week, 12 broadband projects in West Virginia received more than $1.5 million in funding via the state’s Community Development Block Grant program. The projects, which include planning studies and infrastructure development, involve unserved and underserved areas in 27 counties.
Gilmer, Marion and Harrison counties, which the FCC’s report says have 100 percent fixed broadband access, are involved in planning projects awarded grant funding.
Jeff Campbell, president of the Gilmer County Economic Development Association, said there are “plenty of people” without home broadband access in the county. That’s why his group applied for the grant funding, he said.
“Depending on where you live, you think you would have access to the internet, but you don’t,” he said. “Gilmer County is not unlike many counties in West Virginia, or most of the rural U.S.”
The report indicates West Virginia still lags behind most of the country in fixed broadband access, ranking 43rd among states. A 2016 FCC report ranked West Virginia 48th for broadband access, with 70 percent of its population having access.
Also in the 2018 report, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the repeal of net neutrality regulations established under the Obama administration helped the commission meet its mandate of encouraging “the deployment of broadband on a reasonable and timely basis” but that efforts to increase access are still necessary.
Yet the report doesn’t provide any clear evidence that repealing net neutrality will improve deployment, since the data came from before Pai even took his position as chairman, said Commissioner Mignon L. Clyburn in a statement.
“There are 19 million Americans in rural areas who lack the ability to access high-speed services at home,” said another dissenting commissioner, Jessica Rosenworcel. “Ask any one of them if they think the deployment of the most essential digital age infrastructure is reasonable and timely and you will get a resounding ‘No.’ ”