Many McDowell County residents have a new option when it comes to high-speed Internet and telephone services.

Shentel, the cable company that serves McDowell and Wyoming counties in southern West Virginia, just finished lighting up a state-of-the-art fiber optic network it built from the ground up across its service area in McDowell County.

Shentel made a $9 million capital investment in the McDowell County system to replace an aging copper infrastructure with 274 miles of fiber-optic lines, which can carry a virtually unlimited amount of data. Bill Gilliam, general manager of Shentel, said the company’s investment in McDowell County will open doors to new business and educational opportunities. He said upgrading the infrastructure and services in the communities Shentel serves is part of the company’s core mission.

“Before the reconstruction, some of the oldest networks could get a 30-channel cable lineup, no Internet and no phone,” Gilliam said. “Now, they really have unlimited channel capacity, state-of-the-art broadband Internet and phone service they were never able to have before.”

Shentel offers up to 50 megabits per second Internet download speeds, with speeds of more than 100 mbps slated for availability later this year. McDowell County customers now have access to a 250-channel digital cable lineup with high-definition programming and a whole-home DVR option, as well as local and long-distance telephone services.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin lauded Shentel’s efforts when the project was announced in 2012. At the time, Tomblin said 90 percent of McDowell County households would have access to broadband Internet after the upgrades.

According to federal broadband data, only 76.2 percent of McDowell County residents had access to broadband Internet as of June 30, 2013, which ranked 43rd out of West Virginia’s 55 counties.“This announcement brings new meaning to the words ‘Reconnecting McDowell,’” Tomblin said. “Shentel’s plan to provide broadband access to McDowell County residents is an investment in the community and its future.”Reconnecting McDowell is a public-private partnership aimed at finding solutions to the county’s overarching problems, including poverty, drug abuse and underperforming schools.Shentel is a partner in the Reconnecting McDowell initiative. As part of its commitment to McDowell County, it is offering a discounted broadband rate for households with children in McDowell County schools. Internet service with download speeds of 1.5 mbps is available for $9.95 per month for qualifying households.

Bob Brown, coordinator for Reconnecting McDowell, said this brings the Internet and all its benefits into the reach of nearly every child in McDowell County at home.

“What we say to the kids is you can work in New York City now without going to New York City,” Brown said. “There’s a lot of opportunities for kids to work over the Internet now. This opens up a lot of opportunities for the kids of McDowell County.”

In addition, Brown said 875 laptops were distributed to every middle school student in McDowell County earlier this year as part of the Reconnect McDowell initiative. The laptops were purchased with more than $284,000 in grant monies from the state and Connect2Compete and are for students’ personal use at home and for educational use in school.

Brown said the free laptops and discounted Internet service will bring more McDowell County families than ever into the digital age.

“It’s a tremendous boost not just to the children, but to the families, and even the economy of McDowell County,” Brown said.Gilliam said the geography of the county made it challenging to build new cable infrastructure from scratch. When Shentel purchased the McDowell County cable systems in 2009, some of the lines and equipment were more than 30 years old, and some customers only had access to 30 analog channels. It was evident the system needed an overhaul.

The copper infrastructure could have been revamped to handle the same services Shentel now offers on its fiber network, but Gilliam said Shentel went with the more expensive fiber option because it would last longer and require less regular maintenance.

“The fiber costs a little more initially, but longer-term it requires less maintenance and less power to run the network and services,” Gilliam said. It’s an investment on the longer term and is better for us on a long term maintenance basis.”

Additionally, Gilliam said fiber-to-the-home is advantageous because long runs between the main lines and homes down rural roads or long driveways can be easily made with fiber. Such a run could cost thousands of dollars with traditional copper cables because the signal would have to be amplified.

“Some of our rural communities we serve have homes very far from the road where the utilities run,” Gilliam said. “We can get to those very easily with fiber. With traditional lines like phone or cable, that’s a miniature construction project, but with fiber, its very simple.”

Shentel, which serves more than 180,000 customers in parts of West Virginia and Virginia, also recently constructed a fiber-to-the-home system over an older cable system it acquired in Ronceverte. Gilliam said that project will bring the company’s high-speed Internet and home phone services to approximately 1,400 customers who only had basic cable available before once the new system is launched next month.Gilliam said the company is already seeing the effects of the service upgrades in McDowell County. While cord-cutting is the trend in most metropolitan areas right now, Gilliam said subscriber numbers in McDowell County are going up.

“It’s a good investment for Shentel and it’s a great service for these communities,” Gilliam said. “It’s great to see the employees proud to offer those advanced services to these communities that have never had it before.”

Brown said even Welch, McDowell County’s largest city with a population of 2,406, had “spotty” Internet service before Shentel’s upgrades, “But now it’s available countywide,” Brown said. “It opens up all kind of opportunities for business development and it opens up opportunities for families to see a doctor from home. We’re talking about telehealth opportunities now with the new Internet access.”

©2014 the Charleston Daily Mail (Charleston, W.Va.)