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Mountain State must increase its broadband access

The light gray silhouette of West Virginia stands out against the dark green color of all our surrounding states on a map of “Broadband Access by State” in Melissa Preddy’s article “The High Price of Slow Internet” in the AARP Bulletin September 2020.

West Virginia is the only state east of Chicago that offers less than 71% of the state population access to high speed internet.

West Virginians of all ages need to be alert to the way that Covid-19 funding is allocated for rural internet upgrades in our state. On Oct. 22 the federal government will begin to allocate up to $20.8 billion over 10 years subsidizing construction of high speed internet at an auction on Oct. 22. Poor internet service is “keeping rural America behind,” said Dr. Christopher Ali, University of Virginia professor of media studies.

Broadband problems did not seem so important in rural America before the Covid-19 Crisis when kids went to school on a bus, parents went to work in a car, and seniors went to see the doctor on a “Country Roads” van. Then suddenly last March students had to use virtual online learning methods, rural workers had to telecommute, and doctors needed to offer telemedicine. Several people in the same household needed service at the same time.

At that point, 40 million people in the U.S. realized that they had unreliable internet or none at all. The rapidly increasing rate of internet use was driving up the demand for internet service, and providers simply could not keep up the pace. Now the internet freezes when kids start school about 9 a.m. Then at some point it comes back online, but the delay slows academic progress and causes young learners to focus on something else.

The Federal Communication Commission [FCC] underestimated the number of people who lacked internet service claiming that it was only 21 million people. A group of citizens have formed BroadbandNow, and they estimate that the number is more like 40 million underserved people in the country. The digital divide falls between rural and urban area. In cities 1.4% of the population lack , but in rural areas it is 26.9 % according to Preddy.

For-profit internet providers cannot earn enough money to make their services pay in West Virginia and other rural areas where the population is sparse. The federal government allocates funding for rural internet service, but this funding has not been used effectively in West Virginia. In other states community co-ops have used federal loans to start public utilities that provide broadband internet for small rural populations. We need laws that support such possibilities in West Virginia.

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