On December 4, 2016 the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Technology met to receive the report of the new Broadband Enhancement Council. Unfortunately, few legislators showed up but among those who did were Del. Paul Espinosa (R – Jefferson, 66) and Del. Sarah Blair (R – Berkeley, 59). Many Democrats were defeated in the election and new Delegates have not yet been assigned to committees.
It is widely accepted that fast broadband speeds are essential in the competition among states for new business. Other benefits include broadband-enabled virtual visits with medical professionals, lower cost online education and online job searches. We need adequate broadband throughout West Virginia but, as in many other ways, we lag far behind the rest of the country. Thirty percent of West Virginians do not have access to internet upload and download speeds that meet the FCC’s definition of broadband, and 50% of rural West Virginians do not. We rank 48th in the nation when it comes to broadband access.
The Council’s report was presented by Chair Robert Hinton, who is also the Executive Director of the Upshur County Development Authority. Hinton’s presentation was energetic and knowledgeable. He made clear that the Broadband Enhancement Council favors a 100 Mbps standard in West Virginia instead of the slower 25 Mbps standard that now is considered by the FCC to be broadband. The discussion raised the possibility of public/private partnerships to build out the “middle mile” infrastructure that will supply broadband to the unserved.
The middle mile can be likened to the interstate highway system connecting large distances, while the last mile can be likened to off-ramps and local streets. The last mile is the actual connections to broadband end users from the middle mile. Because of West Virginia’s terrain, the middle mile might be more complicated and expensive to construct here than in other states.
According to Hinton, a public/private partnership might involve state funding for construction of the middle mile in exchange for commitments from the providers, such as Frontier Communication, to build out the last mile and provide service at certain speeds or perhaps at a certain price.
Del. Espinosa, who is a former Frontier executive, asked several questions. Without referring specifically to the public/private partnership idea, Espinosa asked Hinton about proposed legislation from last session that would have required broadband providers to meet certain minimum broadband speeds. Espinosa said that he would be concerned about any requirements placed on providers that might end up “causing some people to lose service altogether.”
Espinosa later clarified his remarks, saying that that in his view there is already adequate middle mile infrastructure in West Virginia. The issue according to him is the last mile connections. He said there are customers in rural areas who are satisfied with as little as 3 Mbps and don’t want to pay for more. A state-mandated higher speed, with its likely greater cost to consumers, might actually cause some consumers to drop internet service. But it doesn’t seem like much to ask that providers figure out how to provide fast broadband service to all users, even those who would choose a less costly option, at a satisfactory return on investment. After all, this is the business they are in and providers in other states have solved the problem.
The Legislature will have to be sensitive to the industry’s ROI issues, but before long it should require internet providers to be creative and flexible about how to serve West Virginians.