|By Bob Weaver|
A bill meant to help broadband service expand in rural West Virginia is set to go into effect July 7. That bill includes loan insurance for the cost of expanding broadband to unserved or underserved areas and greater powers for the Broadband Enhancement Council.
What it means for West Virginia, one of the most behind states with real broadband, is uncertain, likely to help a little.
Many country people are so use to terrible broadband, they've settled for just it working.
West Virginia broadband councils have increased urban internet access while rural citizens remain in the dark.
Twenty five or more years ago, politicians and providers extolled
broadband as the technology that would be the salvation of America's rural areas.
"Companies, businesses and families could live in rural areas and handily use the technology, and expand the economy."
Coal and natural gas driven economies like West Virgonia paid little mind, and state politicians fought against the technology, and still are, favoring the rise of coal and natural gas as economy drivers.
Well, here we are, at the bottom.
The late Bill Howley and myself attended dozens of development meetings that made the promises, and Howley believed that if West Virginia got on the renewable energy and broadband train, the state would have a boisterous renewable energy and broadband economy.
Well, here we are at the bottom, still hanging our hat on the past, WV politicians even fighting for it every day.
Three times since 2000, the approach has been to build out the middle mile, in hopes that internet service providers would springboard off them to complete the last mile to country doorsteps. Instead, with council approval, capabilities in towns that are cheaper to deal with have been improved while the rest remain in the dark.
In the process, the councils relied on industry input, their lobbyists, that resulted in oversized routers in locations where they weren't needed, unused excess fiber installed and egregious prices paid for all.
Not to mention two audits of how federal dollars were spent on these projects. The results were not positive.
Plenty of shenanigans.
Based on its track record, the council appears in need of independent, professional, long-term management that understands the need for broadband technology, and doesn't cave in to lobbyists.
President Donald Trump promised to expand broadband service to rural areas as part of his $1 trillion nationwide infrastructure plan that has yet to get off the ground.
That may be easier said than done.
It would take an estimated $80 billion to extend broadband to all U.S. areas that lack it, but the White House has initially proposed spending just $25 billion over 10 years on rural infrastructure needs.
At the same time, policy experts disagree about how best to expand rural broadband -- and what responsibility government has to subsidize it, unlike the government's project to bring electric to all people in rural America (REA).
Only 55 percent of rural U.S. residents have access to download speeds faster than 25 megabits per second, the government's standard for adequate service.
That compares with 94 percent in urban areas, according to a 2016 Congressional Research Service report.
Advocates say high-speed internet is an increasing necessity for everyday residential and business activity, and for economic growth.
In rural Calhoun, a few individuals have tried to operate small business, unable to survive without sacrifice.
For example, farm equipment now comes with the option of remotely troubleshooting a problem with a tractor or combine -- but only if you've got the bandwidth. Farmers who lack broadband must haul their equipment to a repair shop and potentially lose days of planting or harvesting.
They also can't get real-time data on soil or moisture conditions, which can lead to over-applying seeds and fertilizers, raising costs, creating environmental damage and making their farms less profitable and efficient.
"Without it, you're asking farmers and ranchers to operate a viable business without modern technology,'' said R.J. Karney, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation in Washington.
Annual initiatives suggested by political officials are slow moving, including making grants and loans to towns or rural cooperatives, extending tax credits to lure for-profit companies into under-served areas, and holding "reverse auctions" in which providers bid on public money that's offered to bring service to specified areas for the lowest cost.
They make good political fodder.
The $80 billion price-tag for reaching all residential and business locations that lack access to fiber or cable broadband can be slashed by being slightly less ambitious, according to a paper released in January by Paul de Sa, former chief of the Federal Communications Commission's Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis.
Spending about $40 billion, for example, would extend broadband service to 98 percent of the places that lack it, while spending $10 billion would reach about 92 percent, the analysis showed.
Investment in broadband is probably more beneficial than funding other areas of infrastructure because the U.S. is "just beginning to realize the potential innovation and productivity gains" it offers, de Sa said in the paper.
Still the focus is on roads, bridges and public facilities.
"You're only getting left further and further behind as time goes on and internet-based stuff becomes even more important to every aspect of people's lives,'' de Sa said.
A skeptic is Ryan Bourne, an economist at the Cato Institute in Washington. "Clearly, broadband access is very important for the economy and very important for individuals," he said. "But we shouldn't entirely throw out economic considerations here."
Previous spending has drawn criticism. Some of the $7.2 billion spent on rural broadband in President Barack Obama's 2009 stimulus bill was wasted, said Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee.
Much of it was wasted.
Aid went to more prosperous areas that may be more profitable for providers but did little to expand access, he said.
Shirley Bloomfield, chief executive of NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association, which represents independent telecommunications companies in rural areas and small towns, said the timing to expand rural broadband is good, with advocates pushing for it and exit polls showing that 62 percent of voters in small cities or rural areas voted for Trump in 2016.
My personal interest in broadband and as a Calhoun Commissioner of 18 years, seems to have been for naught.
So what now?
Will it still be broadband promises, broadband dreams?