As mayor of Belington — a wonderful community founded 250 years ago along the banks of the beautiful Tygart Valley River — my constituents raise questions that local officials have fielded for decades. Now, along with concerns about jobs, schools and basic public services, I hear regularly about an issue essential to our community’s future: broadband internet access.
As West Virginians well know, we trail much of the nation in internet access. Some estimates suggest that 40 percent of our communities are underserved or have no access at all. These places have a hard time attracting new businesses, creating high-wage jobs, educating young people and helping police officers, firefighters and first responders to protect their fellow citizens.
Broadband access is perhaps the single biggest economic development challenge facing our region. That’s why every West Virginian has a stake in a bipartisan effort now underway in Washington to finally break the partisan deadlock on an issue closely intertwined with broadband investment: the longstanding debate over “net neutrality.”
While net neutrality is a complex issue, a common-sense consensus is widely supported by majorities in both parties. In short, the big internet companies and platforms should have to play fair with consumers: No blocking. No throttling some websites to benefit others. No unfair fast lanes or slow lanes. The internet must remain open.
That’s the easy part we can all agree on. But despite broad consensus, the U.S. Senate and House have spent more than a decade haggling over whether and how to enact these protections. And alarmingly for West Virginia, some of these proposals would root broadband rules in telephone utility laws dating back to the 1930s, which most experts agree are outdated and would devastate efforts to attract more broadband investment to rural areas.
With all the partisan infighting in Washington, consensus and common sense aren’t as common as they should be. But recently, Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Roger Wicker, R-Miss., announced encouraging progress on a bipartisan effort to protect net neutrality and promote more investment and innovation in broadband that rural states like ours have long needed. They’ve called for a bipartisan solution that protects net neutrality with a more modern framework tailored to the internet.
This bipartisan effort can only succeed if more pragmatic leaders from both parties are willing to come to the table and join the conversation. West Virginia is fortunate to have two senators with reputations for bipartisanship. As governor and U.S. senator, Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has become well-known for reaching across the aisle to build bipartisan coalitions — a strength he shares with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.
Now, we need to bring this problem-solving approach to broadband regulation. The best way to protect internet freedom and openness — while still encouraging more broadband infrastructure investment and innovation — is through a permanent, bipartisan law. In a bitterly divided Senate and House, no bill can pass without bipartisan support.
I hope both of our senators can see this issue from my perspective as the mayor of Belington. With some 2,000 residents, a fascinating history and breathtaking beauty, we’re striving to reclaim our role as a tourist destination. We’re working to develop campsites at a reservoir and attract a coffee shop to downtown, as well as renovate the historic Golden Rule Building, which has one of the few water-operated elevators in North America, for retail space and apartments. These ventures require reliable, high-speed internet.
Without broadband access, we will lose jobs, businesses, tourist traffic and tax revenue that our community needs. I strongly support net neutrality. But it can’t come at the cost of discouraging much-needed broadband investment. The stakes are too high.
Like many small-town mayors, I’m also a small business owner. From that vantage point, I also understand the urgency of improved internet access. As director of a day care center, I am required to inform several agencies about licensing and other issues, such as the food we serve the children. Unfortunately, because my internet service is inadequate, administrative tasks that should be simple have become burdensome.
Rural West Virginians face similar challenges, from the farms to the classrooms. Agriculture is adopting new technologies, such as connected sensors to gather real time data to monitor crops, better predict harvests and increase crop yields. As these technologies become as common as tractors, farmers will need broadband connections. To learn these skills, our students will need broadband, too.
Across West Virginia, communities like Belington sprung up near rivers and railroads. Now we need high-speed broadband to grow and prosper. All our elected officials, from Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., to city halls here in West Virginia, should work together to move the Mountain State forward with a bipartisan plan that protects net neutrality and encourages more broadband investment.