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W.V. Candidates Want Broadband Classified as a Utility

In a parking lot at the Interstate 79 Technology Park, candidates running for everything from the U.S. Senate to Fairmont, W.V., City Council met to discuss elements of a “Broadband for All” proposal.

(TNS) — Calling its proposal the “boldest broadband legislation in the nation’s history,” candidates mostly affiliated with the West Virginia Can’t Wait political movement touted their plan to classify broadband internet as a public utility.

In a parking lot at the Interstate 79 Technology Park, candidates running for everything from the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives to Fairmont City Council met to discuss elements of their “Broadband for All” proposal.

A few key elements of the plan include having broadband internet access governed by the Public Service Commission of West Virginia, which they believe would limit monopolistic power by service providers through the public funding of a broadband “middle mile.” They believe the new classification will increase competition and access, while working with counties and municipalities to secure federal funding, and create a state Office of Technology to coordinate the expansion of broadband.

U.S. Senate hopeful Paula Jean Swearengin, 1st U.S. Congressional District candidate Natalie Cline, West Virginia House of Delegates District 48 entrant Ryan Deems, and Fairmont City Council contender David Knapp spoke at the event.

Swearengin, who is running against sitting Senator Shelley Moore Capito in the general election, said West Virginians are poorly served by large out-of-state internet providers. She said it is time local public providers are empowered.

“Unlike my opponent, I do not favor price-gouging internet service provider monopolies like Comcast, Verizon, Suddenlink and AT&T. I support broadband as a public utility for all Americans by eliminating barriers to municipal and community-owned broadband networks and building a nationwide public digital infrastructure,” Swearengin said.

She said such an approach would be good for state businesses and workers and diversify West Virginia’s economy.

“If we’re going to expand our infrastructure and invite businesses here, we have to have good broadband. It will dramatically increase gross domestic product and create tens of thousands of well-paying union jobs,” Swearengin said. “Sustainable digital technologies can play a crucial role in supporting efficient, resilient, and decarbonized systems. Building this infrastructure can help provide a just transition for workers, which is vital for economic diversity in states like West Virginia.

Aspects of the proposal would be funded by WV Can’t Wait’s so-called “Robin Hood” tax structure as outlined in its “New Deal for West Virginia” plan.

The Robin Hood plan would increase taxes and eliminate exemptions on the state’s wealthiest residents, while decreasing taxes for anyone making less than $168,000 a year. It would also reinstate the Estate Tax for estates over $1 million. WV Can’t Wait estimates the Robin Hood plan would generate $56 million in revenue, enough to fully fund its “Broadband for All” initiative.

Knapp recalled the first time he experienced high-speed internet and what a life-changing experience it was for him.

“I remember the first time I got internet in my home. It was the summer of 2002 and I remember we got it because we had just moved out of West Virginia to Columbus, Ohio,” he said. “While the reason for the move was not to get internet access, it definitely shaped my entire life from there because now I’m a cyber security engineer for a Fortune 500 company operating out of West Virginia.”

Knapp said the local area is burdened with unusually slow internet access.

“The average download speed in Fairmont today is 33 megabits per second, which is 33% slower than the West Virginia average and 66% slower than the national average. In Marion County, 26% of residents have no access to fixed, wired internet service. We continue to pay more and receive less,” he said.

Knapp, too, blamed large corporations for charging too much and providing too little.

“It’s not just a Fairmont problem, it’s a problem across the state. We must break the monopolies that raise rates and cut services. West Virginia must be a leader. This legislation we propose was not written by corporate lobbyists. It was written by the people of our state,” he said.

West Virginia ranks 47th in the nation in broadband connectivity, according the group’s platform, with 500,000 residents, nearly one-third of the state’s population, having no access to high-speed reliable internet service.

Such a disadvantage adversely affects education, economic development, tourism and business creation, according to WV Can’t Wait.

Deems, a teacher in Clarksburg, said a lack of reliable, affordable broadband has created significant issues during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As a teacher, I’ve seen the effects of the coronavirus on education and what the lack of broadband has done to it. It’s put teachers in stressful positions. It’s put our children, our future, behind because they’re not able to access education in an efficient way. It has to stop,” Deems said.

He said high-speed internet is crucial for workers today, many of whom have been forced to telecommute since the start of the pandemic.

“Our governor, Jim Justice, brags about how he still has a flip-phone. Unfortunately, I hate to break it to Jim, but those of us who work for a living need high-speed internet. And we need high-speed internet that is affordable and effective,” Deems said.

Cline said she favors uniform standards regarding the installation of broadband, such as those that exist for public utilities.

“If the coronavirus has shown us anything, it’s how necessary it is for every single household to be able to access broadband. Every single public school child should have access to it. I’m ready to put forth legislation that will have the federal government champion this effort much like they championed the National Electrical Code,” she said. “From a federal perspective, it’s far past time our government step up, take control of this, and make sure we all have access that’s affordable.”

Once considered a luxury, Cline said citizens’ well-being now depends greatly upon high-speed internet access.

“It’s a necessity anymore. It’s no longer a convenience service. The coronavirus has really shined a light on how necessary it is. It’s time we all step up to make sure every family is able to access broadband,” she said.

©2020 the Times West Virginian (Fairmont, W. Va.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.