West Virginia should start experiencing improvements to broadband capacity in short order, starting with grants rolling out this summer to expand existing fiber and cable networks, Economic Development Secretary Mitch Carmichael told lawmakers.
“I think that creates a buzz in our state,” Carmichael said.
Like other states, West Virginia is armed with millions of federal dollars for broadband improvements. State government has received $667 million from the American Rescue Plan, a portion of which may be allocated to broadband. And state government has received $138 million beyond that, specifically for broadband investment.
The focus is on those who do not currently have service.
“It is good news. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the expansion of broadband in West Virginia,” Carmichael said.
Carmichael, a former Senate president, spoke to two different committees during interim legislative meetings today. One was the Joint Committee of Government Finance, composed of the leaders in both chambers. The other was the Joint Committee on Technology.
He said more than 1,500 West Virginia homes this year have received new internet connections.
But he said there is much more to come. He laid out four strategies to improve broadband connectivity to so many of the West Virginia communities that lack good service. Some, he noted, will bear fruit faster than others.
Near-immediate results, he said, should come by leveraging grants to extend existing network lines.
“We want to be able to use these funds to help those existing providers extend their networks where it’s not economically feasible to do so without grant funding,” Carmichael said.
“This is going to be a program that will make very quick headway to connect West Virginians. This will happen quickly once we get the money in place.”
Carmichael specified that a process for grant applications will be announced this month and then rolled out through the summer. He said awards may be made quickly based on valid applications.
“On a monthly basis we’re going to make decisions and turn ‘em around,” Carmichael said. “We want to do it quickly.”
Senator Eric Nelson, co-chairman of the joint technology committee, said he was impressed with the aggressive attitude.
“Your proposed timeline is wonderful. We’d welcome you coming back with periodic updates,” said Nelson, R-Kanawha.
Carmichael alluded to the possibility of so much action that the $138 million might not cover it all.
“We hope the $138 million we have can be expanded and that we have so many applications for such great projects that we’ll need more money to expand those networks,” Carmichael said.
Senator Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, agreed that $138 million may be lower than what is necessary to really make a splash.
“If we’re really gonna do this and do this right, the amount of money we’re going to need, I can see us spending every bit of extra surplus,” Plymale said. “You said it, we only have this one time.”
Carmichael responded, “This is table stakes to get into the game to really elevate West Virginia’s game. The $138 million, yes it’s a lot of money but more can be utilized.”
Carmichael promised members of both committees that the state will offer safeguards to ensure communities are receiving the services promised.
“Do you have plans to follow up?” asked Senator Mike Caputo, D-Marion. “A lot of times we kick the money out with good intentions.”
Carmichael responded affirmatively. “We are very pleased and very excited to go back and audit and examine the awards we provide for connectivity.”
He has continued to describe additional strategies to expand broadband in West Virginia. A second that could pay off quickly is using wireless technology on elevated areas such as towers, buildings or mountaintops to deploy signals. Carmichael has said the equipment already exists in many locations to act efficiently.
“It’s quick deployment,” he said.
Other efforts will take more time. Major broadband infrastructure investment will mean partnering with providers for big projects. And more partnerships are likely with local governments that are receiving their own federal funding, but Carmichael noted planning and organization will be necessary.
Carmichael again spoke of an unprecedented opportunity to improve internet connectivity.
“This funding can really change a lot of the manner in which broadband has been deployed previously in West Virginia.”