While the Internet’s fast lanes get faster all the time, many West Virginians are stuck on the shoulder. One state lawmaker is looking for an opportunity to merge.
Written by Zack Harold
Patrecia Gray’s home is tucked away up a narrow hollow in Mason County. She bought the property in the 1970s with her husband, partly because it reminded her of the Laura Ingalls Wilder book On the Banks of Plum Creek. “We were just going to rough it, and we found out how rough it is.” The property is connected to the outside world by a gravel road. It’s a source of constant consternation for Gray. The gravel often washes out when it rains. State workers come and repair it, but the fix is always the same: more gravel dumped in the road to be washed away when the next downpour arrives.
From a purely economic point of view, the state’s strategy is simple. There are only a few homes in Gray’s hollow and gravel is pretty cheap, so it doesn’t make much sense to spend lots of money paving the road. But economics do little to ease Gray’s mind. After all, she’s the one who gets stuck when the road washes out.
Gray’s other connection to the outside world, her Internet connection, is similarly fraught. Although she only lives about a dozen miles from Point Pleasant, she’s too far into the country to join the cable company’s network. She used a dial-up connection for a long time, longer than most other Internet users, but ultimately found it to be too slow and unreliable.
For a while Gray hoped Frontier Communications would bring its highspeed DSL broadband through her phone lines, but the company eventually decided against it. You can probably guess why. It’s the same reason the state won’t pave her road—too few beneficiaries for too large an investment. “They just say we’re on the end of the line here,” Gray says.
She now uses Frontier’s satellite Internet service. While much faster and more reliable than dial-up, it still has some drawbacks. Gray gets a limited amount of bandwidth each month and if she exceeds that amount, as she often does, the speed of her connection drops way down.
Gray is no super-user. She relies on the Internet for the same things as most of the rest of us—email, web browsing, keeping track of family members on Facebook, and watching videos on YouTube. Her husband is a teacher and mostly uses the connection for work, making lesson plans and remotely accessing his school’s network to update students’ grades. But many times, the connection is just too slow and he gets frustrated. “There’s been times he just shuts it down,” Gray says. Frustrating as it might be, the couple has come to terms with their slow connection. “It’s like a bad tooth,” she says. “If you can’t get it pulled, you just learn to live with it.”
Lots of West Virginians find themselves in similar situations. While about 90 percent of state residents have access to hardwired Internet connections in their homes, the Federal Communications Commission says the majority of those connections are much too slow. Since 2010 the FCC defined “broadband” as Internet connections with download speeds of four megabits per second and upload speeds of one megabit. That’s comparable to using a smartphone connected to a 4G wireless network—just fine for most Internet activities like web browsing, checking email, and basic video streaming. But as technology has advanced and more Internet-enabled devices have entered the home, the FCC announced in January its four-megabit standard was “dated and inadequate.” Now the agency requires speeds six times faster than the old benchmark—25 megabits per second—before a connection can be considered “broadband.”
According to that new definition, West Virginia ranks 47th in the nation for overall broadband access. More than half of the state’s residents do not have access to broadband Internet. Only Arkansas, Vermont, and Montana rank worse. West Virginia’s urbanites fare better than rural residents. Only a third of city dwellers do not have broadband access, according to the new FCC definition. It’s a much different story for the state’s rural communities, however—three-quarters of those residents do not have adequate Internet speeds. These statistics are far worse than the norm. Nationwide, eight percent of urban residents and a little more than half of rural Americans lack access to broadband that meets federal requirements.
Many state leaders worry West Virginia’s lack of access will hold back our economic growth. “You can’t transition if you don’t have this tool.” says U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito, who has declared broadband expansion as one of her top priorities in Congress. “Everyone wants sewer, water, and transportation, but if you don’t have the ability to transmit designs if you’re an engineer, or transmit photographs if you’re a photographer, you’re really hemmed in.”
It’s an important, complex issue that lots of people are hoping to solve. But in the last year, two potential paths forward have appeared. One aims to increase the number of Internet service providers (ISPs) in the state, hoping increased competition will drive providers to expand their networks. The other approach, favored by the state’s largest Internet provider, aims to stretch service to the outer edges of the existing network.
Each approach has its fans and its detractors.
Slow Traffic Ahead
Before we begin talking about those possible solutions, however, it’s important to understand how the Internet works. Think of it like a giant highway system made of wires. All your news stories, Facebook posts, and Netflix movies are carried down this highway in packets, like millions of tiny trucks. These packets ride on “core networks” that run between large cities, like major interstates. Each of these cities have off-ramps known as “carrier hotels,” where your local ISP taps into the core network.
Your packets leave the interstate, take one of these offramps, and turn onto your ISP’s “middle mile” network. This would be the equivalent of state roads in our analogy. This collection of wires carries the data to intersections connected to smaller roads. These “last mile” connections make up the final leg of the journey, like a county route, delivering data to your home or business.
West Virginia’s broadband speeds are slow because some of our “local roads” have very low speed limits. The core networks and middle mile networks are pretty fast—they’re strung together with fiber optic cable, which transmits data using waves of light. Data can travel on these wires as fast as an ISP’s servers will allow, since nothing travels faster than the speed of light.
Things begin to fall apart as we get closer home, however. In West Virginia, the last mile connections are almost always made of copper. These are the telephone lines or coax cables that deliver the Internet to your house. Copper wires transmit data through electrical currents that, unlike light, get weaker over long distances. That means ISPs have to use repeater stations, which recharge the data so it can continue on its way. The farther customers live from an ISP’s repeater station, the slower their connections go. Many customers, like Patrecia Gray, live so far away the connection will not work at all.
To see significant increases in Internet speeds, West Virginia would have to beef up its Internet infrastructure. That could mean more copper wire and repeater stations. Or, if we are truly forward thinking, fiber connections extended to homes. A few things hold this progress back, however. West Virginia’s geography is so challenging and our tiny population is so spread out, it would take a lot of time and money to expand and upgrade the network. And if there’s one thing our state lacks at the moment, it’s money.
One young state lawmaker believes he has figured out a solution to this dilemma.
The Middle Mile
About halfway through the 2015 legislative session, state Senator Chris Walters introduced a bill to construct a new 2,500-mile fiber network with tendrils stretching to every corner of the state, at an estimated cost of up to $72 million. Internet service providers would lease access to this middle mile network, with the proceeds used to cover construction costs and upkeep of the line.
Walters says a state-owned middle mile would increase Internet speeds while also keeping costs down for subscribers. Right now large ISPs are the only ones with middle mile lines. Since they own these networks, they can charge smaller ISPs whatever they like for access. This reduces competition, Walters says, which reduces companies’ incentives to cut subscriber costs or increase speeds.
He believes a state-owned middle mile would level the playing field and increase competition, which would result in fast, cheap Internet. Walters hopes this would encourage more businesses to open in West Virginia. In fact, an economic impact study produced by West Virginia State University estimates the fiber line would create 4,000 permanent jobs and add more than $900 million to the state’s gross domestic product in just the first year after its completion.
Walters’ bill did not gain much traction in the Legislature this year, however. It passed the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee—which Walters runs—only to die in the Senate Finance Committee amid a logjam of other legislation. But its author is not deterred. He believes the legislation stands a much better chance of passing in 2016 and plans to introduce the bill as soon as the Legislature reconvenes in January.
He has spent the last year lobbying fellow lawmakers—Senate President Bill Cole even referenced expanding broadband when he launched his gubernatorial campaign in June—and building a “ground game” with like-minded organizations. “We have a groundswell,” Walters says. “This is our generation’s interstate system. It’s just as important. If you don’t have an interstate of fiber to get there, building the off-ramps is impossible.”
Walters’ “middle mile” bill will be one of Generation West Virginia’s top legislative priorities in 2016, says Executive Director Natalie Roper. “This isn’t about Netflix. It’s so much more than that,” Roper says. “It’s really about business and economic revitalization. We can’t think of anything more fundamental to attract the next generation.” Without modern, high-speed Internet connections, she says, the state’s economy cannot move forward. “Broadband is everything. It’s critical infrastructure just like highways and water and sewage.”
Both Walters and Roper admit Internet service providers have trouble justifying investments to connect the state’s most rural citizens. It’s an expensive undertaking, with not much initial return on investment. “This is why we need a state investment,” Roper says. “If it doesn’t make sense for private companies to create this infrastructure, we need the state to come in and provide that valuable investment.”
The Last Mile
Not everyone likes Walters’ plan, however. “Spending time and public money on things that are already there doesn’t make much sense,” says Andy Malinoski, spokesman for Frontier Communications, the largest ISP in the state. While Walters’s bill would spend the state’s money to build a new middle mile network, Malinoski says the work has already been done. Frontier, along with other large ISPs, already have high-speed fiber lines running all throughout the state. “That would be like creating another four lane up to Morgantown,” he says.
Malinoski says West Virginia’s Internet connections are plenty fast, even though the FCC’s new broadband definition conveys a much bleaker—and, in Frontier’s mind, skewed—picture of Internet access in the state. While many residents do not have 25 megabit access, Malinoski says most households don’t need or even want the service. FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai agrees. In a dissenting statement released alongside the agency’s new broadband definitions earlier this year, Pai says most consumers are perfectly happy with slower speeds. “Seventy-one percent of consumers who can purchase fixed 25 (megabit) service—over 70 million households—chose not to,” he says.
Malinoski questions the purported economic benefits of Walters’ project. He says access to super-fast Internet service is not enough, in itself, to spur business growth. “There are other factors as to why people relocate to West Virginia,” he says.
Frontier does acknowledge that many areas of the state still have difficulty connecting to the Internet, let alone accessing broadbandtier speeds. But Malinoski says a new middle mile network will not help West Virginia improve its access rankings. Smaller ISPs might use the network to expand to some residential customers, he says, but will not spend money to connect the farthest hills and hollows— leaving Frontier to pick up the slack. “The rest of rural West Virginia, we’re still going to be out there trying to connect them.”