In an effort to close the so-called digital divide between rural and urban communities, the Federal Communications Commission is directing up to $20 billion over 10 years to help finance up to gigabit speed broadband networks in unserved rural areas across the nation.
The hope is that some of this money will make it into the coalfield counties of southern West Virginia and Southwest Virginia. As area residents already know, there are some parts of our region where even a cellphone signal is currently nonexistent. High speed broadband — along with a decent cellphone signal — is urgently needed in these areas.
The FCC estimates that more than 100,000 locations in 25 states will be eligible for phase one of the funding. Virginia has 217,000 bid-eligible locations and West Virginia has 130,000, according to the FCC.
The FCC says the first phase of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund will begin later this year and target unserved areas without fixed broadband at speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps.
At this point, we are still waiting to learn what, if any locations, in the coalfield counties will be part of the phase one deployment area.
Lawmakers who have been working to bring additional broadband access into rural communities are applauding the announcement.
“This is great news for rural America and West Virginia,” U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said last week. “The FCC, particularly Chairman Ajit Pai, has been a helpful partner in deploying broadband and funding buildout in areas that need it most. I hope to see visible results in our state from this announcement, and I’d encourage West Virginia providers to apply.”
“While I fully support the effort to bring reliable, high speed broadband to rural America, I remain concerned that this proposal will leave a lot of West Virginia behind,” U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., added. “More than 75 percent of this funding will be out the door before the coverage maps are even updated, there is no opportunity for anyone to challenge the accuracy of the maps at any point in the process, and there is no terrain factor to ensure high cost, hard to serve places like West Virginia can effectively compete for these limited funds. I will continue to work with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and my colleagues in Congress to try to address these concerns, and I won’t stop fighting until all West Virginians have the broadband service they need to compete in today’s global market.”
We, too, have concerns that the coalfield counties — where the need is so great — may be overlooked in the initial round of funding.
So we certainly look forward to learning what specific counties, towns, cities and communities will be included in the initial round of funding.
In today’s day and age, modern infrastructure, including water, sewer, high-speed broadband and close access to a four-lane highway or interstate corridor, is absolutely critical to economic development and growth. Sadly, many prospective companies and industries will not even consider a region where high-speed broadband is still lacking.
That’s why it is imperative for the digital divide to be closed. Areas that are currently unserved or underserved most be afforded access to high-speed broadband.
Local lawmakers, including those on the federal, state and local level, must work to ensure that the phase one FCC funds are directed to the communities with the greatest needs.
And that must include the coalfield counties of southern West Virginia and Southwest Virginia.