The Times West Virginian

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November 6, 2013

Access to broadband is critical for future

The members of nearly one out of every 10 West Virginian households wouldn’t be able to read this article on a computer.

Today, 91 percent of homes have access to broadband Internet services. But leaders in the industry say installing the infrastructure for the remaining 9 percent would not only be a costly endeavor but that the audience isn’t interested.

Earlier this week, U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller hosted a summit with officials from Suddenlink Communications, Frontier Communications, Comcast and Verizon in Morgantown to discuss broadband access and availability. The companies say 100 percent coverage is a lofty goal, though they aggressively expand their networks using grant funding and are attempting to offer low-cost options for low-income families.

But geographic isolation and areas of the Mountain State’s sparsely populated terrain continue to be barriers. And beyond that, many of the poor and the elderly don’t find that the Internet is relevant to their lives, company officials say.

Its relevance, we believe, is more important now than ever, especially for those who live in isolated areas. It offers a sense of connection to the outside world and a whole worldwide web of opportunities to be educated, informed and productive.

Comcast vice president Mark Reilly said that part of the lack of infrastructure dates back to the 1990s when many in rural areas of the state did not want access to cable systems. Because that initial infrastructure wasn’t put in place, bringing broadband Internet access, which shares many of the same methods of delivery as cable, means going back and making connections that have never been there.

“We built a largely residential network where people were demanding it,” he said. Today, “it’s hard to get to that farm, and it can be hard to get to that industrial park.”

We do have a lot to celebrate, however. When a similar summit was held four years ago, the state’s access was 72 percent. Increasing by that large of a margin within four short years shows the determination of the current administration and the commitment of companies to reach those who are unconnected.

For example, Frontier set the goal of bringing broadband to 85 percent of its West Virginia market by the end of 2014, and after an investment of $360 million, the company had exceeded its goal already. The company brought broadband access to 85,000 new homes and with stimulus funds and grants will connect another 67,000 soon.

And though the cost is high, the companies certainly have the support of the federal government in this endeavor.

But, sadly, even that is threatened as cuts have affected all federal agencies across the board.

“I want to do everything possible so that all West Virginians are on the right side of the digital divide,” Rockefeller said. “Now is not the time to cut back on investments in critical infrastructure.”

And we know why it’s critical. Access to broadband Internet means a better shot at economic development, better education in the home and in the schools, and it has the ability to improve public safety, emergency services and health care.

Today, 91 percent is a great statistic. But we don’t think the idea of full coverage is too lofty. In fact, we think it’s critical to our future.

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