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West Virginia Unveils Billion-Dollar Broadband Strategy

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice has outlined his billion-dollar strategy to bring broadband access to underserved parts of the state. At least 200,000 homes and businesses are expected to benefit.

On Friday, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice revealed his billion-dollar strategy to improve broadband connectivity in the state.

The strategy will utilize a combination of funding from federal, state and local sources as well as private-sector partners. A total of $718 million in government funding is expected to be invested in broadband in the state this fall. With private-sector funds, the total investment is expected to exceed $1 billion.

The announcement from Justice detailed that the strategy will connect 200,000 more homes and businesses in the state to broadband.

“Broadband connectivity is something that every citizen needs to have access to, and it needs to be affordable,” state CIO Josh Spence told Government Technology at the NASCIO 2021 Annual Conference. “We’re working within government and within the private sectors to ensure that the funding that’s coming down from the federal government [and] any funding allocated by the state will be used to strategically move West Virginia forward as a whole state.”

Spence is also one of 13 voting members of the West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council, which he said has played a large role in the state’s broadband strategy.

The strategy will primarily focus on three initiatives: (1) the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF); (2) the West Virginia State Broadband Initiative (WVSBI); and (3) leveraging existing funding sources.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s RDOF offers funding to Internet service providers for bringing service to underserved areas. The state now has the highest rate of RDOF funding per capita.

The WVSBI is to be operated by the state’s Office of Broadband and Broadband Council. The initiative will use ARPA and state funding to increase broadband connections with four awards programs: Line Extension Advancement and Development (LEAD), which will dole out money to providers to expand fiber and cable networks; GigReady Initiative, which will match the money that local governments are putting into broadband projects; Major Broadband Project Strategies (MBPS), which will provide assistance to more complex multicounty projects; and Wireless Internet Networks (WIN), which will focus on wireless solutions for areas where fiber isn't an option.

Each of these four programs will score applicants through evaluations by independent experts on criteria such as feasibility and focus on equity. The programs will begin making funding decisions in 2022.

FCC data indicates that over 30 percent of rural homes and businesses in West Virginia lack reliable broadband connections.

Other states like Maine and Missouri are also making major broadband investments through funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). West Virginia has been analyzing maps of broadband access in the state with the intent of leveraging ARPA funding to connect unserved areas.