The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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November 5, 2013

Providers: Broadband access across state a lofty goal

MORGANTOWN — Some of West Virginia’s biggest Internet providers said Monday they’re working hard to reach the 9 percent of people statewide who still lack broadband access, but hurdles remain and one official called complete access a lofty goal.

At a Morgantown summit hosted by U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, officials with Suddenlink Communications, Frontier Communications, Comcast and Verizon all said they’re aggressively expanding their networks, and most are creating low-cost options for low-income families.

But the challenges go beyond geographic isolation and the high costs of extending into tough, sparsely populated terrain. They say many people who could benefit most, including the elderly and the poor, have yet to see the relevance of the Internet.

Frontier committed to bringing broadband to 85 percent of its West Virginia market by the end of 2014, and Executive Vice President Kathleen Quinn Abernathy said it exceeded that goal two years ahead of schedule. It’s invested $360 million in the past three years and will use stimulus funds and other grants to continue expanding, she said.

Some 85,000 homes had access for the first time by the end of 2012, and another 67,000 will have it soon, Abernathy said. But it will take much longer to reach the remaining 3 percent in the targeted area, or about 20,000 households.

“It’s a dollars challenge,” she said. Frontier struggles to balance “the highest of the highest costs” of getting into those hard-to-reach areas against the need to deploy service as widely as possible.

Suddenlink spokesman Michael Kelemen said companies also need more accurate coverage maps. Some, he said, show Suddenlink serves an entire area, when in fact it serves only part of it.

In the short term, Kelemen said, 100 percent coverage might be overly ambitious.

“We still don’t have water and sewer to 90 percent of our homes,” he said, “so it’s a lofty goal.”

Mark Reilly, a vice president with Comcast, said tougher federal regulation won’t get the job done any sooner. After 100 years of highly regulated telephone service, for example, not everyone in the U.S. has service.

“Regulate what?” he asked. “We’re still very much in the early innings of this game.”

Reilly said the industry is investing billions on its own, and he worries regulation could have a chilling effect.

Rockefeller, D-W.Va., was an early champion of extending broadband to rural America to encourage economic development, education and commerce, and to improve public safety, emergency services and health care.

At his last summit four years ago, less than 72 percent of West Virginians had access. Today, that’s up to 91 percent. But Rockefeller said the job isn’t done until everyone has access.

“I want to do everything possible so that all West Virginians are on the right side of the digital divide,” he said. “Now is not the time to cut back on investments in critical infrastructure.”

Debbie Goldman of the Communication Workers of America said that while the growth so far is laudable, her union has found that 40 percent of consumers aren’t getting the speed of access they were promised. The CWA launched a Speed Matters initiative two years ago to help consumers put providers’ claims to the test.

Those promises must become reality if businesses are going to locate in West Virginia, Goldman said. Living in a wired home increases the likelihood of landing a job, she said, and even long-established industries like agriculture now need to be online to monitor everything from market prices to weather reports.

But Comcast’s Reilly said many of those farmers didn’t want or need cable TV in the 1990s when that industry was growing, so they lack the lines to support broadband service today.

“So we built a largely residential network where people were demanding it,” he said. Today, “it’s hard to get to that farm, and it can be hard to get to that industrial park.”

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