West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council Chairman Seeks Gigabit Internet Statewide

Other council members argued that Hinton’s gigabit standard probably is setting the bar too high — and might put off internet providers struggling to offer 10 megabits-per-second service in rural areas.

by Eric Eyre, The Charleston Gazette, W.Va. / September 7, 2016

(TNS) -- The new chairman of a governor-appointed panel wants to set a lofty goal for broadband speeds in West Virginia: Make gigabit internet service available statewide.

That’s 100 times faster than average broadband speeds in the Mountain State. Some cities, like Chattanooga, Tennessee, offer access to gigabit internet service, but not entire states.

“Our focus, our achievement level should be 1 gig,” said Rob Hinton, chairman of the West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council. “If we don’t get to 1 gig statewide, whether it’s wire line or fiber ... we’re going to be behind, as a state. A lot of people say it’s impossible, but nothing’s impossible.”

Other council members argued that Hinton’s gigabit standard probably is setting the bar too high — and might put off internet providers struggling to offer 10 megabits-per-second (mbps) service in rural areas.

“I applaud your thought, but I think, at this point, it’s a very unrealistic goal,” said council member Robert Cole, adding that the 1-gigabit service would require extensive excavation work to install large high-speed fiber lines. “If we scare [internet providers] off, they’re going to put up a wall. Getting their cooperation is key.”

Hinton said the 1-gigabit goal would send a message and help attract businesses to the state.

“Does a regular household need 1 gig? Probably not,” said Hinton, executive director of the Upshur County Development Authority. “But the reality is, it’s creating a market for 1-gig connections. The way technology is going in the rest of the country, we have to think that way.”

Last year, the Federal Communications Commission announced that only internet download speeds of 25 mbps or higher would qualify as broadband. West Virginia state law sets 4 mbps as the minimum broadband standard.

Broadband council members said West Virginia must establish an internet speed standard that’s faster than the federal minimum, which seems to increase every other year.

“If not, it makes you always chasing, chasing, chasing, trying to get there,” said Robbie Morris, another council member.

But West Virginia Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette said following the FCC standard makes more sense — and makes it harder for internet providers to argue against. Gigabit internet offers users download and upload speeds at 100 times the rate of an average broadband connection, but the service requires fiber-optic cables to be connected to homes and businesses.

“While the higher goal is laudable, as a practical matter, when we look at policies and try to drive resources to communities, you can use the 25-meg standard,” said Burdette, who’s also serving on the council. “There are areas of this state — especially for publicly traded companies — that do not make sense [financially] to build out at higher speeds and higher costs.”

The 13-member Broadband Enhancement Council met for the first time Tuesday, 18 months after state lawmakers passed a bill that established the panel in March 2015. The group replaces the former Broadband Deployment Council, which folded in December 2014.

The old board was made up of members who represented internet providers, such as Frontier Communications, Suddenlink and Citynet.

The new council consists mostly of members who represent consumers and businesses that subscribe to internet services. Six seats represent residents and businesses in rural communities. Two members represent urban areas, and a single member represents “users of large amounts of broadband services.”

Other seats are assigned to the state’s commerce secretary, schools superintendent, vice chancellor of higher education and chief technology officer.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who appoints council members, struggled to fill the seats because of the panel’s strict makeup, the governor’s aides have said.

Also Tuesday, council members voted to request $14,000 in funding to buy data that show current internet speeds in West Virginia. The funding will be scraped from the former Broadband Deployment Council’s account.

“I think we need a refresh of what’s really going on before we can prioritize things,” said Gale Given, the state’s chief technology officer.

The council plans to report back to the governor and Legislature with suggestions on improving and expanding high-speed internet across West Virginia.

“Broadband is a critical component,” Hinton said, “not only for community development, but, most importantly, for economic development.”

©2016 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.