U.S. Senator introduces “Capito Connect” plan to improve state’s internet access and speed

FAIRMONT, W.Va. — U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito played host to an event Wednesday at the I-79 Technology Park discussing the challenges of and unveiling a plan to bringing affordable, high-speed internet access to every home, business and classroom in West Virginia.

Senator Capito introduces her plan to increase broadband access and speeds in West Virginia
Senator Capito introduces her plan to increase broadband access and speeds in West Virginia

“We’ve sort of been spinning our tires and the more we do that, the further behind we get,” Capito said. “When you see the statistic that 56 percent of West Virginia doesn’t have adequate high-speed internet, that’s a problem [for] telehealth, education, economic development.”

The statistics she used came from a study conducted by the Federal Communications Commission, which also found that in rural areas of the state the number increases to 74 percent.

The main question addressed during the roundtable, which included representatives from the state Office of GIS Coordination, Region VII Regional Planning and Development Council, Appalachian Regional Commission, the FCC, The Rural Utilities Service, the state Telehealth Alliance and a small business owner, was how do you provide internet to throughout the state to meet the FCC’s standard download speed of 25 mbps?

Tony Simental, West Virginia State GIS Coordinator, said it will be a tall task as the West Virginia Mapping Program looked at internet speeds submitted by providers, along with surveys submitted by customers and speed tests submitted through Ookla from 2012 to 2014 and found that more than half of residents had fixed broadband –high-speed data transmission to homes and businesses– available only partially or not at all.

These findings were especially true in rural areas, where Simental said companies that provide the service are not finding the financial benefits of extending the infrastructure to these areas and then people not risking no customers sign up.

Reaching these areas was compared to reaching similar areas with water services, but Simental pointed out a major difference between the two.

“When we compare broadband to water as a public service, yes, it is a lot like it with one difference,” he said. “Water, you have to subscribe to it because you need water because you drink water every day. Broadband, yes you need it, but you can survive without it.”

Another challenge facing the initiative is how to get people currently with internet access up to broadband speed and also get access to everyone without the process taking too long and the state falling behind in downloads speeds.

Capito said it has to be done one step at a time.

“You don’t want to say one over the other, but I think we’ve got to get service to everybody first. In my view, that should be where we start.”

To tackle the overall issue, the senator introduced her three-step “Capito Connect” plan.

The first step is “Understanding the Benefits of a Connected West Virginia” by listening to the needs of communities across the state during an announced listening tour, through comments at her website, or comments through the mail to one of her offices. From this, a state-specific plan can be formulated.

The second step “Fostering Collaboration between Government and the Private Sector.”

Capito’s hope is that fostering collaboration will help eliminate duplicate and outdated programs so that West Virginia can efficiently deliver broadband services to communities.

Another role for her in this step would be to connect the public with available grant money to help companies establish better infrastructure for broadband services.

One such grant program from the FCC is part of Phase II of the Connect America Fund, providing funds for eligible areas to assist in providing standard speeds.

“That’s the big push from the Universal Service Fund that’s going on right now,” Ryan Palmer, Division Chief, FCC Telecommunications Access Policy Division said. “There will also be many other efforts from the FCC and all of these federal and state agencies and private and non-profit companies to, sort of, come together.”

The third step would then be “Promoting Economic Growth through Innovation” by taking what is learned from listening to citizens, taking the resources from public private partnerships and then developing new ways of reaching the areas without broadband service as well as increasing speeds.

“I think we need to make this a state effort, but it needs federal help,” Capito said. “It get so expensive to go to that last home or that last school and I think that’s where we really need to pull together and work as one.”

The full Capito Connect Plan can be read here.