A reliable connection to quality internet is essential to business, education, and healthcare in the 21st century.

Blame John Oliver, Bernie Sanders, or your worn-out shock absorbers, but infrastructure is finally a hot-button campaign issue this election cycle. There is bipartisan agreement that repairing and maintaining our roads and bridges is critical to economic development—but what about our digital infrastructure? What about the “Information Superhighway” through which you can sell anything from apps to apples?

Unfortunately, West Virginia ranks 47th in the nation for broadband competitiveness (2015 FCC report). Based on listed capacity, our local infrastructure fares better than much of the state, with only 8-14 percent of Jefferson County lacking access. However, as evidenced by private class-action lawsuits and the WV Attorney General’s recent settlement with Frontier Communications, not everything about our local network is “as advertised.”

Arguably, one of the biggest reasons for the languid performance of our local internet infrastructure is our reliance on an aging, copper-based network. The term “broadband” refers to the ability of a line to carry multiple signals over a single wire. Copper-based DSL and cable lines serve millions of customers in the U.S., but the data demands of the modern internet is pushing this technology to its limit. But where copper drops off, fiber optics pick up.

With current technology, fiber optic lines can carry anywhere from 100-1,000 times more data than conventional copper lines—over longer distances and more securely. But to date, millions of federal stimulus dollars invested in major internet service providers (ISPs) like Frontier and Verizon have primarily yielded what some call an overpriced “monopoly network,” complete with 57,000 miles of unused fiber and 1,000 “grossly oversized” wireless routers costing $22,000 apiece.

There is hope, however, that we can emerge from the winter of disconnection into the glorious summer of a well-connected society. Small ISPs, such as SHENTEL®, CITYNET®, and even a nonprofit cooperative in Riverton, WV, are building fiber optic lines direct to consumers in otherwise remote regions like Pocahontas, Pendleton, and McDowell Counties. But these local networks are only as good as the main trunk lines connecting them to the rest of the world.

WV Senate Bill 315, championed this past session by Chris Walters (R-Kanawha), sought to remedy one part of this problem by committing the state to building and managing a 2,500-mile fiber optic “middle-mile” network, which would serve all 55 counties in the state. Private companies would make their profits building and selling access to the “last mile” of the network. This allows smaller ISPs to compete without having to build their own statewide lines or pay their competition for access to the grid.

A substantially less ambitious version of the bill passed the Senate 29-5 on February 18, but died in the House of Delegates. The 82nd Legislature passed bills allowing telemedicine and instructing the State Board of Education to develop a plan to teach computer science in public schools, but the House of Delegates wouldn’t even consider a bill supported by Generation WV, the state chapter of AARP, IT professionals, educators, and business owners.

A reliable connection to the collective knowledge of all humankind is essential to business and central to education and healthcare in the twenty-first century. High-speed internet obviously benefits businesses working directly in technology, but it can also connect tourism, agriculture, and the arts with the rest of the world. It is time to build the network that will unlock our state’s potential.

 

David Manthos (pictured above) is the Comm. Director at SkyTruth in Shepherdstown, volunteer organizer of the Cougar Coders club at Jefferson High School, and is seeking the Democratic nomination for the WV Senate—16th District.

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