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How West Virginia Can Move Into The Digital Age… Finally

West Virginia has been moving too slowly to high speed Internet.

Research by Broadband Now ranks West Virginia 44th out of the 50 states for broadband access via fiber or cable.

The Internet shortcomings are even more glaring because of the pandemic, as teachers struggle to connect with their students online.  One study found that nearly one-third (30.3 percent) of rural households with one or more children in school do not have high speed Internet.

Health care providers are increasing their use of telehealth, an invaluable service in a state where a drive to the doctor or the hospital can be hours away instead of minutes.  However, the expansion of telehealth is limited by our dearth of broadband.

For these reasons and more, the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) is vital to West Virginia’s well-being.  The fund will provide more than $20 billion nationally over 10 years to expand broadband in rural areas of the country.

West Virginia could receive up to $800 million.  Here is how it works:

Communications companies apply to the FCC, which reviews their financial and technical capabilities. If approved, the providers can participate in a reverse auction scheduled to begin on October 29.

The providers bid to receive grants to build out high speed service in various parts of the state that are broken down into census blocks.  The FCC is looking for companies that will give the best service (highest speed) at the lowest cost.

Winning bidders must provide a letter of credit, a financial guarantee that the company will do the work.  This was going to be a problem in West Virginia because the communications companies were having difficulty securing the financing.

However, that hurdle was cleared when Governor Justice lifted the regulatory cap on the amount of funds the West Virginia Broadband Infrastructure Loan Insurance Program can make available.  As our Jeff Jenkins reported, “Justice signed an executive order that will make the state a sort of co-signer when companies go after the federal money for the build out.”

At least a half dozen in-state companies are seeking approval or have already been approved by the FCC for the auction and a couple of out-of-state companies have expressed interest as well. The competition should help drive down costs while increasing internet speeds.

But we will have to see how the bidding goes.  Some parts of West Virginia are so remote that companies will see little potential return on investment even with the availability of federal money for the build out.

Still, this is, as FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said, “the Commission’s biggest step yet to close the digital divide and will connect some of the hardest-to-serve areas of our country.”  If maximized, the RDOF program will provide broadband service to up to 128,000 households in West Virginia that are currently underserved.

And that would finally bring large swaths of our state into the digital age.

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