Bringing broadband to West Virginia is an uphill climb, experts say

Throughout the eastern half of the country, approximately thirteen states have slivers or substantial chunks of the Appalachian mountain range in their borders, yet only one of them is entirely Appalachia: West Virginia.

“West Virginia is the mountain state,” said Robbie Morris, Chairman of the West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council. “We love our mountains, but they pose a great challenge to expanding broadband service to every resident that you probably don’t have to deal with in Nevada or Arizona.”

The West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council was established pre-pandemic in 2017 via state legislature in coordination with the Department of Economic Development. Since its founding, the predominant focus has been finding solutions to reach unserved homes and businesses across the state. About 27 percent of households in rural West Virginia currently lack access to 25/5 Mbps internet speeds.

Throughout his tenure, Morris has found that broadband needs have a way of creating consensus amidst a range of priorities in the state. “We have water, sewer and highway needs… Every state has a long list. [But] broadband is not only an economic piece of infrastructure, but it’s a quality of life or quality of place requirement as well.”

Case in point: the U.S. Department of the Treasury disbursed West Virginia’s $136.3 million in Capital Projects Funds (CPF) dollars in May 2023—and the entirety of the funding is going towards broadband access initiatives across the state. The Pew Charitable Trusts recently noted that West Virginia is using $25 million of their CPF on their Line Extension Advancement and Development (LEAD) Program.

Taking the LEAD

The genesis of the LEAD program began with an all-too-common happenstance: A neighbor could look out their window, see a house with internet access, one so close that they could throw a rock at it, yet the neighbor would have to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket for the incumbent ISP to run service down the road to their home. Often, those service options would be coaxial or DSL, so the quality never matched up to the expense. The LEAD Program ensures that there are funds readily available to connect such households to the incumbent provider.

“The LEAD Program extends networks in those situations [to] serve a minimum speed,” said Morris. “It’s the lower hanging fruit. Middle mile or last mile is already in space, you’re just trying to get to the end of the road… That’s the quickest implementation program [to] use state capital projects and state recovery.”

The state’s current population hovers around 1.8 million people, and one of the greatest perks of the land—the lush canopies of endless trees—has proven to be incredibly costly when it comes time for broadband upgrades. “There may be one home for seven people per square mile, so if you’re talking about fiber, you’re running a lot of fiber that can only connect two to three homes,” said Morris.

Historically, this has translated to a statewide need to consider all internet access for completely unserved residents. But even go-to options like fixed wireless aren't so simple because there isn’t a clean line of sight through the trees.

“You put up more towers per square mile than necessary to hit all the homes in your targeted areas,” said Morris.

Since all broadband solutions throughout the state pose unique challenges because of topography, there is a case to lean into what is considered a superior solution anyway: fiber. “At this point, it’s as future proof as you can get. We want to invest in something that will be around for a while,” said Morris.

Supply and demand

Across state and federal funding, West Virginia is poised to see a massive swell in jobs and upgraded infrastructure in the coming years. The CARES Act allocated $50 million dollars towards broadband efforts across the state. And the state will also get a share of the upcoming $42.5 billion in Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) funding. There is also American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), U.S. Department of Agriculture and state grant money coming down the pike. But even for all of the opportunities these investments create, Morris is keenly aware of how industry supply and demand may strain statewide goals.

“I would say any ISP in the country who says they’re not worried about workforce when it comes to broadband deployment is probably not being truthful,” Morris said.

To mediate these concerns, West Virginia has a workforce council as a part of their BEAD plans that will coordinate between ISPs, technical colleges and other training programs to create a pipeline of workers.

“It’s a concern… There are definitely a lot of pitfalls out there that are being met the best they can, [we just] have to see how it all plays out.”

In the meantime, broadband planning has gone local with dozens of listening sessions across the state. Major themes from residents include a lack of access to technological devices and the affordability of a monthly internet bill. According to the American Community Survey, the median household income in West Virginia is $47,343, thus the affordability threshold hovers around a $78.91 internet bill per month. However, the cost ranges greatly by the county. Internet access in Jefferson County costs a whopping $144.52 per month.

To mediate financial barriers, the state’s focus has been on pushing cost-savings initiatives, like the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) and getting as many households signed up for the $30 monthly rebate as possible. “The [digital equity] plan is being developed right now as part of BEAD, but the first step is that service is available,” noted Morris.

In the future, Morris hopes to not just see ISPs building out a single internet option for unserved households. “I would love to see multiple ISPs in markets. [It] creates better service and lower costs all around,” he concluded.