Faced with Sub-Par Internet Service, Local West Virginia Coalitions Pursue Other Options

The town of Lewisburg, and some neighborhoods, are hoping to secure their own high-speed Internet service.

by Tina Alvey, The Register-Herald / October 12, 2017

(TNS) -- MAXWELTON — Just as Lewisburg officials are in the early stages of exploring the possibility of acquiring high-speed internet service for the town, so too are some individual neighborhoods.

A loosely-formed coalition currently going by the name “Proposed Breezy Hill Broadband Co-Op” met at the Greenbrier Valley Brewery Wednesday evening to collect more information about the process put in place by House Bill 3093 earlier this year to bring reliable internet service to the state’s underserved and unserved areas.

The Breezy Hill group is roughly defined as being those who live in and around the Pinnacle, Echols Acres and Rolling Hills subdivisions, all of which are near downtown Lewisburg, which does have internet service, albeit sluggish.

Many of the 50 or so people who attended Wednesday’s informational session reported that they have either no internet service or such slow service that they have to resort to using public hotspots to even check their email.

The evening’s facilitator and the driving force behind the nascent broadband cooperative, Dr. David Yost, cautioned the group, “We’re at least six months out from an interim solution (to the lack of service), and it’ll take another three to five years to get fiber optics to our houses.”

Nonetheless, Yost said he believes it is time to consider forming a limited liability company (LLC) and assembling a core of between five and seven people willing to do some of the legwork involved in applying for grants to pay for the necessary infrastructure to obtain broadband service.

He outlined three options for the group to consider:

  1. Point-to-point radio antennas, a wireless system which relies on participants having a line of sight to one or more 100-foot antennas.
  2. A wireless mesh network, which involves creating a small network within the community.
  3. Fiber optics, a wired alternative that is the most expensive, yet most reliable, broadband source. Yost described that option as “the Cadillac” of the three.

Realistically, a fiber optic system is out of Breezy Hill’s budget. Yost noted that the system’s trunkline would probably run parallel to U.S. 219 down from the 911 Center to the neighborhoods involved in the co-op, a distance of some six miles. With fiber optics costing in the $20,000 to $30,000 per mile range, he said the project would be too expensive to tackle as a first step.

But the point-to-point system could fill the gap until enough customers sign up to make the fiber optics feasible, Yost suggested. He emphasized that with any of the three options, it would be necessary for the co-op to sign up with an internet provider.

“There’s money out there for communities,” he said, noting that the best way to tap into that grant money is to formally create a co-op.

Around 30 people had already signed up in the weeks leading up to Wednesday’s meeting, and more added their names to a list that made the rounds during the meeting. At least 20 members are necessary to form a broadband co-op that is eligible for grant funding under the new legislation.

Representatives from the state Broadband Enhancement Council, the USDA Rural Development office and Internet providers CityNet and Shentel also attended the meeting, primarily to offer encouragement to the potential members of the co-op.

Yost said he also had invited Frontier and Suddenlink — both of which offer Internet service in Lewisburg — to attend the meeting, but neither accepted.

Jim Martin, with CityNet, spoke at length, however, reinforcing Yost’s statements about the co-op’s options and encouraging the group with hints about his company’s long-range plans to extend fiber optic line down from Elkins to Lewisburg. Another line would snake down to Oak Hill and Beckley, under the scenario Martin outlined.

But he made no promises, saying instead, “That’s going to be a multi-year project.” Right now, he said, the company is involved in multiple projects involving Snowshoe Mountain ski resort in Pocahontas County.

Martin said if the co-op gets off the ground and gets a wireless point-to-point system installed, CityNet “would be happy to run it,” even offering the services of the company’s 24-hour call center.

John Dunlap, who is the chief technology officer with the state’s Office of Technology, said that each community must find its own path to obtaining reliable broadband service.

“There’s not (just) one solution for all communities,” he said. “There is hope, but it will not happen overnight.”

©2017 The Register-Herald (Beckley, W.Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.