CHARLESTON — Expanding broadband to internet-starved portions of West Virginia will be a top priority over the next three months, state officials pledged recently, echoing promises from the past.
Among other things, tax money could foot the bill to help make connections in some rural areas, said state Secretary for Economic Development Mitch Carmichael. Announcements loom about public-private partnerships in broadband investment, he said.
West Virginia ranks 47th among the nation’s 50 states in broadband connectivity, with 30% of residents lacking access, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
In the session starting at noon Wednesday, Jan. 12, lawmakers are poised to work on legislation following last year’s broadband expansion bill, passed in response to the state’s longstanding plight.
“Our entire focus with our broadband is to get to those in West Virginia that do not have service,” Carmichael said.
He referred to what’s known as “last-mile” connectivity, where residents are near in proximity to neighbors with broadband but private companies say they would lose money digging to connect those who lack access. The new law subsidizes that work.
Del. Clay Riley, R-Harrison, said an enhanced “dig once” policy passed into law during last year’s session will increase the speed at which new lines can be installed. Broadband and utility companies can now share the cost of projects that require digging on property operated by the Division of Highways, which allows for repairs and installation in the same period the ground is open.
Service reliability and long-term oversight of overall connectivity throughout the state will be areas of focus for the Legislature this year, Riley said.
“Not only do you have to get (connectivity) there, but in the long run it has to perform and it has to perform well,” he said.
Sen. Owens Brown, D-Ohio, said broadband operations must be “people friendly,” encouraging people to stay and work and enticing others to move to the state. He said lawmakers could look into tax breaks for workers as a way to achieve this.
“I do agree we need to bring in different types of industry, but ever since I can remember, we’ve been talking about bringing in industry, industry, industry,” Brown said. “But we always seem to end up in the same place so often, still at the bottom.”
While the broadband expansion bill was lauded after its passage, its core architect, Del. Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, accused lobbyists of taking control of it last year and using the Senate to gut the legislation’s consumer protection provisions. Linville also accused the Senate of gutting the 2019 broadband bill. He was not a panelist during Friday’s legislative preview.
Lawmakers also must consider this session different avenues for internet connectivity, including the use of 5G networks and low-orbit satellites.
West Virginians have been subjected to nearly two decades of broken promises on broadband. Most notably, in 2007, the Legislature passed a public-private partnership bill addressing last-mile connectivity, but then-Gov. Joe Manchin vetoed the legislation based on assurances that providers could fix the problem without the government’s help.
Gov. Jim Justice has held multiple “game-changer” announcements in the past two years concerning private investment. Two months before his last election, Justice spoke of securing $766 million in new broadband investment, but further research showed nearly all of the funding came directly from years-long work at the federal government level. Justice promised a “billion-dollar” broadband investment in October, which Carmichael promoted Friday.
Now, the state awaits the results.