On Wednesday, state leaders and a wireless advocate sat down to discuss the future of broadband and mobile technologies in the Mountain State at the annual state meeting of the West Virginia Chamber at The Greenbrier.
Much of the discussion was on what West Virginia lacks and how to best move forward with catching the state up with the rest of the nation.
Beth Cooley, the senior director of state legislative affairs at CTIA, an advocate for the wireless companies, was on hand to discuss the needs of the wireless industry in West Virginia.
Most of those needs are centered on the deployment of 5G mobile service, which Cooley said will happen within the year.
According to Cooley, the jump to 5G from 4G service will boost speed and responsiveness and make it possible to create smart communities and networks.
"We're talking about remote monitoring of infrastructure," Cooley said. "Roads, bridges, buildings, parks, venues; citizen convenience, real-time tracking of information including information on traffic lights and smart parking."
Another feature of 5G-powered smart communities that Cooley touted was for use in public safety, which she said would save lives and reduce crime.
Though the future of mobile technology is at the doorstep, Cooley also said West Virginia is at a disadvantage to implement new technologies.
A large portion of that disadvantage is due to increased data load on mobile infrastructure, causing a bog-down.
According to Cooley, mobile data consumption has increased 40 times since 2010, with traditional cell phone towers becoming less effective as increased data congestion lessens the towers' reach.
Cooley said technology exists to lessen that congestion and improve wireless networks.
Speaking on small cell transmission devices which can fit on traffic signals or light posts, Cooley said 20 states have passed legislation that has made the deployment of small cell devices easier. West Virginia is not one of those states.
According to Cooley, laws in the Mountain State treat pizza box-size small cell devices the same as 200-foot mountaintop cell towers for permitting purposes.
Cooley argued that modernizing mobile implementation laws in the state would greatly help the effort to deploy 5G in West Virginia.
While excited for the possibility of 5G, Robert Hinton said the state is lacking in a key factor that could lead to the development of faster mobile service: fiber line.
"One of the things we have to know is even though 5G is a wireless component, it always is going to be reliant on a fiber backbone infrastructure," said Hinton, the chairman of the West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council.
Hinton praised the state legislature for opening up highway rights of way to fiber installation, calling it a move in the right direction.
According to Hinton, work has begun to map and organize broadband projects with the West Virginia Division of Highways.
Along with organizing projects, Hinton said that the broadband council has gathered data through the publicly available online speed test.
According to Hinton, 40,000 individual West Virginians have taken the speed tests with 350,000 speed tests being completed across the state since the beginning of the year.
"When it comes to this topic, there is just a lot of information," Hinton said. "There's a lot of things to be done and there's a lot of work to be done."
The chairman also cautioned against seeking one simple answer to the state's broadband problem.
"There's not one person or one company that's going to come into a community and solve this problem," Hinton said. "It's going to take a grassroots effort."
According to Hinton, a good portion of that effort could be done through public-private partnerships with local governments and economic development agencies taking advantage of public funding options to help mitigate the cost of private companies deploying broadband services in areas which may not have had enough return on investment otherwise.
"We have to create an environment that breaks down a lot of barriers for these companies to be successful, for these companies to be profitable," Hinton said.
State Sen. Gregory Boso, R-11th District, spoke on his district's need for broadband despite its rural nature.
West Virginia's 11th Senate District is made up of a fifth of West Virginia's land mass covering a portion of Grant County and all of Nicholas, Pendleton, Pocahontas, Randolph and Upshur counties, making it the largest state senatorial district east of the Mississippi River and roughly the size of Connecticut.
Boso said it takes him four and a half hours to drive from one end of the district to the other, but the district is extremely rural, making up six percent of the state's population.
"When you get to talking about broadband and you talk about wireless connectivity in those types of areas, it's very difficult to have providers want to make investments and encourage their investors to take money and plow it into those rural areas, but we have a great need for them," Boso said.
Boso said small businesses have called for broadband to reach an international market, adding in one particular case the district has lost a resident because of lack of good connection.
The resident, a farmer, has moved to Virginia to take advantage of good internet speed to market his cattle nationally.
Boso said the state needs to attract new residents, especially veterans, and he said allowing business to do what business does in every area of the state would make that goal achievable.
One particular market that Boso is interested in is furniture manufacturing.
With his district's bountiful hardwoods, Boso said broadband could attract furniture manufacturers to build in the state instead of West Virginians cutting West Virginia lumber simply to ship it overseas only to turn around and purchase furniture from overseas manufacturers.
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