The state put aside extra funds for any county that wanted to invest in rural broadband. Half of all counties applied.
Fiber optic cables Image: Daniel Phelps/USAF
This summer, the West Virginia state legislature decided to take some leftover funds for water and sewer projects and reinvest it in another essential public utility: the internet. These funds were evidently needed, because half of all counties in the state—27 of 55—have already applied for a piece of the pie.
In July, the state announced that a combination of those leftover funds and a portion of the state’s Community Development Block Grant—a national program that funds community growth projects—would be combined to provide a pot of an estimated $1.5 million for West Virginia communities to use on building broadband infrastructure for underserved communities. The requests filed so far total just over that, at $1.59 million.
It’s another local example of just how wide the digital divide has become in the US, how eager communities are to connect, and how much work there is to do. When even a relatively small pool of money opened up, dozens of counties in the state jumped at the chance to fund even the first step: surveys and planning projects.
“For West Virginia to even compete, we need to level the playing field,” John Tuggle, executive director for the Region 4 Planning and Development Council—one of the groups that applied for a grant—told the Charleston Gazette-Mail. “We need broadband throughout the state. Anyone knows you aren’t going to attract work without internet. For business, it’s a must.”
Tuggle leads a group that represents five counties in southern West Virginia, a part of the state that is particularly underserved. Thirty percent of West Virginians don’t have access to broadband, and in rural areas nearly half—48 percent—of residents lack broadband access, according to a report from Senator Joe Manchin this year. Only two states (Montana and Mississippi) have a worse connectivity rate, which is why West Virginia has started looking for creative solutions. Investing the CDBG funds, which were previously only used for water and sewage infrastructure, is one of those ideas.
Most of the projects are focused on planning and survey studies: figuring out the best way to connect the most residents as possible. Once this information is gathered, it will be easier for communities to take advantage of certain broadband laws adopted by the state earlier this year. At this point, the state has not announced which projects will get funding, or how much money they will get.
In April, West Virginia passed a law that provides loan guarantees to companies that expand broadband service, allows for microtrenching—a cost-effective technique where a shallow conduit is carved into roadways and then covered over with blacktop—to lay fiber, and makes it easier to get approval to attach internet cables to utility poles.
Notably, the law also made it easier for communities to form local cooperatives that can build and manage broadband networks. Under the new law, a group of 20 families and businesses, or three cities or counties, can form a co-op, which is one of the most cost-effective ways to close the digital divide in rural and lower-population areas.
But these kinds of efforts are at risk under an apathetic Federal Trade Commission, which threatens co-op funding and seeks to redefine broadband to hide the reality of the digital divide. President Trump’s proposed budget even sought to eliminate the CDBG, where the funding for these projects came from. Just as states are starting to take rural broadband seriously, support from the federal government is fading.