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W.Va. Governor’s office holds roundtable discussion on new broadband strategy

Published: Oct. 20, 2021 at 8:48 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - After announcing a new broadband strategy to help households with limited or no access last week, Governor Jim Justice, along with other state leaders, held a roundtable on Wednesday to discuss the new project.

“There is nothing that I can see right now (as) important as broadband across the state,” said Governor Jim Justice (R-West Virginia). “So many people come and are disappointed when they come because, we don’t have the ability to even connect ourselves in many, many different areas of our state. When doing so, you know, it’s surely difficult not only to attract but it’s also extremely difficult to keep.”

On Friday Gov. Justice announced the new strategy that is expected to bring high-speed internet to roughly 200,000 households and businesses across the mountain state.

“Broadband internet connectivity in West Virginia has held us back, in spite of all the growth that we’ve had,” Secretary of the West Virginia Department of Economic Development, Mitch Carmichael said. “We’ve got programs in place, plans, (and) mapping avenues in which to utilize these funds to deploy the broadband.”

The Geographic Information System (GIS) Coordinator, Jamie Hoffman is managing all the data and mapping for the broadband development. Hoffman said they’ve made a huge transition to map broadband availability from the census block level down to the address level.

“We have accounted for 200,000 and counting addresses that we’ll be targeting for our broadband programs,” Hoffman said. “We’ve identified addresses who have access to broadband who will be receiving broadband throughout the state.”

Hoffman said they had residents across the state participate in a speed test, survey and provide information so they could update their address data base to identify the lack of service.

Up until this point, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mapped broadband data out at the census block level. That means, if one person or one specific location within that census block had broadband service to a certain level, the FCC would count the entire census block as served.

“Our issue in West Virginia has been that one person in that census block may be served but there may be 50 others who are not,” said Kelly Collins Workman, the director of the West Virginia Department of Economic Development and Broadband Office. “We have made a crucial transition in West Virginia from census block data, which is very generous and very general, to address level data. The current system unfairly penalizes those residents who do not actually have service and they’re just included in this generalized number that doesn’t really reflect reality on the ground.”

Leaders say addressing their data based on specific addresses will help narrow down who needs service and help connect them to it.

The Governor’s strategy will add a $236 million state broadband program to $362 million in Federal Communications Commission funding and $120 million from other state and federal sources, for a total of $718 million in government funding expected to be allocated by fall 2022.

The funds will be allocated through competitive programs that draw matching funds from private-sector and local government partners, generating more than $1 billion in total broadband investment.

“This money can only be utilized to serve those who do not have broadband service,” Carmichael said. “So we are absolutely going to those who are currently unserved as defined by the FCC which is 25 down three megabit speeds.”

The strategy’s second major component will be operated by the state Office of Broadband and Broadband Council, using American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and state-budget funding. ARPA’s Capital Projects Fund includes $136 million for broadband in West Virginia.

Last Friday, Governor Justice added two bills to the West Virginia Special Session that would create an additional $90 million appropriation of ARPA State Fiscal Recovery funds for broadband projects, along with a $10 million appropriation of state general revenue funds for wireless broadband projects. These sources will provide $236 million in combined funding for the state’s own competitive broadband projects initiative.

Carmichael said once internet access is provided to the homes that are in need of it, they will be conducting audits and speed tests to ensure the broadband is serving adequately.

Carmichael said the work will take about two years maximum on some of the programs while other areas, who will have federal programs, may not see work complete for up to five years. However, officials say their goal is to have plenty of new connections before the end of the year.

“Our goal with our first wave of funding is to get to a point of what we call functional connectivity, meaning that we would like to see us get to,” said Workman. “A good top level number, let’s say 90%, that of our answer population or rural areas that we’ve reached with broadband. Then we can continue to work on that 10% and we have to make it a goal, the governor’s committed, the legislature has committed, to making sure that we maintain a sustainable broadband development program in West Virginia.”

During the roundtable, panel members were asked if this will be affordable for West Virginians:

Affordability is incorporated in their criteria, Carmichael answered. “One of the components in our scoring mechanism is an affordability tier. Also, there is a federal program called the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program that provides $50 (per) month subsidy to any county resident that, in which their county participates, in Title One free or reduced lunch program so that’s basically every place in West Virginia.”

If you’d like to see the interactive West Virginia broadband map, click here.

Gov. Justice announces strategy to bring high-speed internet to more West Virginia homes

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