On the surface, it appears that help may be on the way for West Virginia and other states where a sizable portion of the population does not have access to high-speed internet. After all, the federal government has a $4.5 billion grant program intended to expand wireless internet in rural areas, and the Trump administration announced earlier this week that it intended to spend $20 billion over the next decade for the same purpose.
But wait. The broadband expansion program for unserved or underserved areas apparently isn't going anywhere very quickly because the government isn't quite sure which areas would qualify for the grants.
So, let's not hold our collective breath. In this case, it appears the government has put the cart before the horse, and even if the horse was in front of the cart, it wouldn't know where it's going. This is something the Federal Communications Commission should figure out with all due speed, because states like West Virginia, and to a lesser degree Kentucky, meanwhile are suffering from a digital divide. That gap between areas of the country that have good access to high-speed internet and those that don't puts the latter at a disadvantage. For states like West Virginia, that means fewer job opportunities and less access to digital tools that can improve health and education.
The problem for the grant program aimed to help rural areas is that the FCC doesn't have a clear picture just how well or how poorly areas are served with high-speed internet.
The FCC so far has relied on data from telecommunication companies to get a picture of which regions need the most help. However, there are doubts about the reliability of that data. Are the wireless carriers overstating their coverage to burnish their image?
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has raised the issue, stating that he believes the data now possessed by the FCC overstates the coverage - to the point that areas in need of broadband development aren't meeting requirements for grants based on suspected faulty data. Because of questions like that, the FCC grant program is on hold while the FCC investigates the accuracy of the data supplied it by wireless carriers. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel conceded to The Associated Press that the agency doesn't know for sure where the needs are most acute, calling it "embarrassing" and "shameful." He's correct in that assessment.
What we do know is that many parts of West Virginia lack availability of high-speed internet. That's borne out by the experiences of tens of thousands residents who face difficulties every day as they struggle with lack of internet service or very slow service.
The website BroadbandNow, an advocacy group for consumers which works to develop accurate assessments of access to high-speed internet, gives the Mountain State a connectivity rank of 45th among all the states, based on broadband coverage and average download speeds. It estimates that about a quarter of the state's population has no coverage. Contributing to that relatively poor coverage are the state's mountainous and hilly terrain, which makes it difficult to build broadband infrastructure, and sparse populations in many areas, meaning carriers don't have the financial incentive to serve the areas.
That's why it's important for the FCC to resolve this issue quickly - to come up with an accurate and fair way to assess the availability of high-speed internet. West Virginia and many other states need help to close the digital divide, and enabling the federal grant program to function properly is vital to providing it.