The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

November 6, 2013

Goal too lofty?

Rather than grasping at 100% availability, use technology as development tool

— The penetration of broadband Internet availability in West Virginia has increased from 72 percent of residents four years ago to 91 percent today.

Broadband and its faster Internet speed has long been recognized by many, including Democratic U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, as a key factor in West Virginia’s development, both educationally and economically.

Suddenlink Communications, Frontier Communications, Comcast and Verizon are expanding their networks and have expressed their commitment to bringing broadband access to as many West Virginians as they can, no matter how rural their location.

But the more remote an area, the higher the cost when it comes to providing broadband access for what is known as the “Last Mile.” And Internet providers are concerned that the goal of 100 percent access to broadband in West Virginia may prove too tough to meet.

“I want to do everything possible so that all West Virginians are on the right side of the digital divide,” Rockefeller was quoted by The Associated Press on Monday. “Now is not the time to cut back on investments in critical infrastructure.”

Suddenlink spokesman Michael Kelemen says 100 percent access is “a lofty goal” when “we still don’t have water and sewer to 90 percent of our homes.”

And Mark Reilly, a Comcast vice president, warns that increased government regulation solely to meet that 100 percent penetration number could have a chilling effect on investment by Internet providers.

He notes that after 100 years of highly regulated telephone service, not everyone in the United States has landline phone service.

“We’re still very much in the early innings of this game,” Reilly said.

Part of the reason we question the 100 percent broadband access goal is that it doesn’t address whether or not people will sign up for high-speed Internet even if it is available. A federal study released last summer, Exploring the Digital Nation, found that 35.4 percent of West Virginia households did not have a computer. Mississippi ranked lowest at 35.5 percent.

Washington State ranked highest in this category, with a computer ownership by household rate of 85 percent.

Also, the study found that 59 percent of West Virginia families subscribed to high-speed Internet. Nationally, 70 percent of households pay for high-speed Internet connections.

Rather than focusing on a number, like 100-percent broadband access, we believe that government and business can — and should — work together to use technology as an economic development tool for the state. Instead of imposing regulations on Internet providers to meet a 100-percent broadband standard, we believe it already is in their financial interest to improve and expand their services to increase their customer base.

Last week, Republican Attorney Gen. Patrick Morrisey told The Register-Herald, “We need to become much more competitive from a tax and regulatory perspective. We need to continue to advance our educational standards and improve our business climate. That comes from the government and the common person working together because there’s no entity that can do this by themselves.”

We think this is the approach that can best serve West Virginians when it comes to capitalizing on new technology.

Complete, 100-percent broadband access, while a laudable goal, is less important than a working private-public partnership that helps create a climate in West Virginia for technological innovation and entrepreneurship.

The results from that cooperative effort will be best for the majority of West Virginians.