West Virginia Pursues FCC Mobile Broadband Funding

An FCC official fielded questions last week from legislators and other stakeholders on how the state can secure a chance at better funding for mobile Internet.

(TNS) — A Federal Communications Commission official fielded questions Friday from West Virginia’s U.S. senators, along with development and broadband stakeholders, on how the state can maximize its chances of securing funding for better mobile internet service.

Michael Janson, deputy director of the FCC’s Rural Broadband Auctions Taskforce, centered his presentation at BridgeValley Community and Technical College on how parties can challenge what areas are eligible for up to $4.53 billion in funding for mobile broadband expansion.

“I can say that this is the largest, most engaged turnout that I have had for one of these outreach events,” said Janson, who called the Mobility Fund II “one of the highest priorities in the FCC today.”

The visit comes after shortcomings in data likely eliminated seven West Virginia counties from a chance at getting up to $1.98 billion in support for improving fixed internet speeds — a fund where there was no ability to challenge what areas were eligible.

At the presentation, Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., emphasized the importance of obtaining accurate data for the Mobility Fund II — lamenting the lack of activity in West Virginia during the Mobility Fund I.

Manchin recalled when former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler visited the state after data collected by the FCC claimed Tucker County had 99 percent mobile phone coverage. Wheeler attempted to make a wireless call in the county, but couldn’t get a strong enough signal to do so.

“I said, ‘Tom, that’s the problem — in this Mobility Fund I, the maps were screwed up,’ ” Manchin said.

In that first fund, West Virginia won two bids to improve mobile coverage in parts of Clay and Putnam counties. Yet there is still plenty of work to do elsewhere in the state, judging by the FCC’s map of initial eligible areas for the Mobility Fund II.

Much of West Virginia’s Eastern half, along with portions of its Southern and central regions lack qualified 4G LTE service — the fastest connection commonly available for wireless users — per the map.

“It’s tough to get good service, which is why the Mobility Fund is so important to us,” said Capito, adding that the state’s tourism industry could see a boost with improved service in rural areas.

Janson said West Virginia likely has the highest percentage of eligible land for funding in the Eastern half of the United States — but much more of the state could eventually be considered eligible.

Many communities along Interstate 79 and in the New River Gorge region have been ruled ineligible, with just one provider reporting that those areas are properly served with 4G LTE.

Government entities and other parties can challenge rulings of ineligibility to the FCC, collecting speed test data to use as evidence against a provider’s claims of 4G LTE coverage. The window to challenge areas of the initial Mobility Fund II map closes August 27.

The areas where just one provider has reported qualified 4G LTE service would be the easiest to challenge and overturn, Janson said, since a challenger would only have to dispute the service of one provider instead of several.

After the response window to those challenges closes, the FCC will create the final map of eligible areas for the fund. Mobile providers would then bid on what areas they want to build service in at some point in 2019.

Capito said she is concerned that during the auction process, providers might avoid the region and bid in areas where establishing service is cheaper due to flatter, more accessible land.

“The build in our area is much more expensive than to build in a Kansas cornfield,” she said to Janson. “Are we going to be at a disadvantage here [in the auction] because we have more expensive buildout costs?”

Janson said that issue had been brought to the FCC’s attention. The agency previously contemplated using a “terrain factor” for past auctions that would have factored topography into the funding equation, he said.

“That’s an open issue in this proceeding, so I won’t say too much about it,” Janson said of terrain challenges.

©2018 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.