BUCKHANNON, W.Va. — The U.S. Department of Agriculture is providing a $3 million grant to provide broadband internet access to hundreds of unserved and underserved West Virginians.
The check was awarded to the Central West Virginia Development Association for a project that will provide broadband to more than 3,600 households, businesses and community facilities in Barbour, Randolph and Upshur counties.
“When I think about West Virginia, I think about a place and a people who are tough, have resilence and who get things done, so with that foundation, we could not be more proud of the investment we are announcing today,” said Anne Hazlett, assistant to the Secretary for USDA Rural Development, during a public announcement on Monday. “I certainly look forward to being your partner in prosperity for many years to come.”
Hazlett and U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito met with local leaders and officials during the announcement at Buckhannon-Upshur High School — a setting Capito felt was the best fit because she sees students benefitting significantly from broadband access.
“I think the students know how important it is. They have great technology here at the school, but if they have a paper they’re working on or if they’re doing a drawing or something, if they take it home and can’t download it, it’s useless,” she said. “And the communication they have with one another or the ability to stream for entertainment.”
While a handful of students raised their hands as to having no internet access at home, more than half of the student body in attendance at the assembly said the internet they have at home is too slow.
“Which means what, you’re getting kicked off at peak times of the day, it’s too slow to send anything, it’s too slow to receive, you can’t do a lot of things on it,” Capito said. “So the underserved is just as important as those who don’t have service at all.”
However, education is not the sector that relies on having a fast and reliable internet connection.
“If you’re going to build a business, health care and telehealth,” Capito said. “Agriculture uses a lot of connectivity in terms of big farms, trying to figure out deployment of the best fertilizers and other methods, so this stretches all across our state now. It is essential for this generation and for us to keep moving forward.”
Rob Hinton, executive director of the Upshur County Development Authority, said the long-awaited project is a community effort between the authority, Sen. Capito, the USDA, Buckhannon-based internet provider Micrologic and numerous tri-county residents.
“We’re going to build telecommunications towers, which are kind of like cell phones towers but not for cell phones, and we had to find property owners that we could work with to build a tower,” Hinton said. “Here’s the catch — we couldn’t offer them any money — so we had to find property owners that are willing to allow us to a build tower on their property and receive just free internet service.”
Unserved and underserved residents is a problem all throughout rural America, not just West Virginia. Hazlett said nearly 40 percent of rural Americans do not have access to the same quality service that is enjoyed by those who live and work in more urban areas.
“At USDA Rural Development, we’re all about helping rural communities find prosperity, and connectivity is a foundation for so many issues in rural communities, whether we’re talking about economic opportunity, education and workforce training or health care access,” Hazlett said. “We feel it’s a foundational piece in so many communities and are thrilled to come alongside communities as they bring it home.
“We are focused on making rural America stronger,” she said. “We’re committed to the future of these communities, and at present, broadband connectivity is just a key piece of the future in so many of these places. It’s the electricity of the modern era.”
Connectivity is an issue that Sen. Capito has supported since her beginnings in politics.
“This digital divide that exists is something that really concerns me,” she said. “When I first got into the Senate, we created Capito Connect because we realized at that time, 56 percent of our state did not have high speed internet, high enough speeds to conduct business or be able to take your homework home.”
Desirae Lindow, the senior class president at Buckhannon-Upshur High School, lives in town and says she won’t see tremendous impact from the broadband expansion, but she is excited for the opportunities it will create for her peers.
Lindow stays after school each day to tutor other BUHS students through the “Homework Helps” program that the school started this school year.
“A lot of the students who stay after school stay because they do not have access at their home for internet,” she said. “They stay so they have time to access laptops and computers so they can get their homework done in that general time so they don’t have to worry about it when they get home and don’t have access.”
Upshur County Superintendent Roy Wager said he looks forward to his students having equal opportunities outside of the classroom.
“School aged children in the tri-county area impacted by this grant will finally have an opportunity for equal access to digital learning resources outside of the school environment, providing the potential for learning 24/7/365, alleviating digital disperity and potentially closing the homework gap,” Wager said. “A reduction in the homework gap may in turn level the academic playing field between the digital haves and have-nots, thus improving academic achievement.”
For those have-nots, broadband internet access is closer than they may think.
“I think it’ll be moving quickly,” Capito said. “They’re just now getting their license, and I think it will be a matter of — I don’t know precisely — but I would say within the next two years.”
However, Capito is optimistic that this project is only the beginning for connecting West Virginia’s residents.
While not this project may not work for all unserved and underserved parts of West Virginia, Capito hopes that it will serve as a model for the remainder of the state.
“Our work is not finished,” she said. “This is a big hit and a big beginning for Capito Connect and for the entire state of West Virginia because there are still more areas that lack broadband.”