Imagine a rural West Virginia town where budding entrepreneurs flock to build their online businesses — attracted not just by the landscape and lifestyle, but also a reliable high-speed connection to the internet.
Politicians have sold this dream for years. But for the many West Virginians who pay a hefty monthly bill for internet that barely works, or the many others with no connection at all, it couldn’t be further from reality.
But this place does exist, if you know where to look.
Take Wardensville, a town near the state’s Virginia border with around 260 residents. All of them have access, if they want it, to a high-speed internet connection, thanks to a local internet company and a decade-old federal grant.
Wardensville is an outlier. For years, West Virginia has sat near the bottom of national rankings of broadband access. That’s despite state and federal officials channeling millions of dollars in federal subsidies to the telecommunications giant Frontier in an effort to prop up its aging network in the state. Now, most of West Virginia’s rural communities are largely reliant on Frontier for both phone and DSL internet connections — if they’re available at all.
But as Frontier, now bankrupt, struggles to maintain its aging network and invest in new infrastructure, towns like Wardensville demonstrate that — despite Frontier’s claims — it’s not impossible to bring reliable, fast internet to rural West Virginia.
There, and in much of surrounding Hardy County, homes and offices are wired directly with fiber, a technology that allows data to maintain high speeds over much further distance than traditional copper telephone wires.
The result: new jobs. Elizabeth Pennell relocated her company, ASC Services, to Wardensville in 2017. The firm transcribes live video feeds for big media companies like CNN and Fox News.
Over the last three years, she’s brought 20 jobs to the state. Her employees earn a decent wage. Before the pandemic made meeting in-person difficult, they worked out of an office on Main Street.
Pennell said business was booming. And her company’s internet provider, Hardy Telecommunications, has kept up without a hitch.
A vital community service
Hardy Telecommunications is not a typical company. It’s a cooperative, founded in 1957, and owned by its customers. Any profits the company makes, it returns as credit on its customers’ bills.
In 2010, it was awarded a $22 million grant to build out a fiber network. The funds came out of the stimulus package passed in the wake of the Great Recession.
The company also took on $9 million in federal loans, and has since invested $7 million more. That’s a lot of money in a state that has struggled to allocate any funds at all to address the problem.
But it pales in comparison to the hundreds of millions of dollars Frontier has received over the same decade.
In the case of Hardy Telecommunications, the payoff has been clear. Its fiber now reaches 3,600 homes and businesses. Anyone in the cooperative’s service territory – over 90% of the county — can request service and have cable installed directly to their home.
And demand for the service has exploded during the pandemic.
“We’ve been swamped,” said Derek Barr, assistant general manager at Hardy Telecommunications. New installations are booked out for months.
Even the school district has reached out for help. Administrators surveyed students and found many still lacked internet access at home, so they partnered with Hardy Telecommunications to install 15 WiFi hotspots in community centers. The company donated time and thousands of dollars to get it done as fast as possible.
“We looked at it as a vital community service. It wasn’t a project that was going to make us any money,” Barr said.
The partnership between the county and its telecommunications cooperative has gained national recognition. When the former head of the Federal Communications Commission, Tom Wheeler, came to Hardy in 2016, he called it the “poster child” for the agency’s nationwide efforts to promote rural broadband expansion.
No more Netflix
But while one county has become a national darling, the state as a whole has fallen behind. More than 18% of West Virginia households lack a high speed connection, far surpassing the rate of its neighbors.
To understand why, drive eight miles north of Wardensville to Elizabeth Pennell’s home in Hampshire County.
There, there’s no Hardy Telecommunications. No fiber. There’s little internet at all.
Pennell has gone through at least seven different internet providers in the six years since she moved to West Virginia. She chose the 84-acre farm because she enjoyed the privacy, and wanted a place to keep her horses.
But she wasn’t expecting the significant downside: no more Netflix. On some days, not even email.
She quickly hit the data caps set by her satellite provider, Dish Network. For years, she settled on Frontier. But, it was slow. “Netflix was a fantasy, a fairy tale,” she said. She couldn’t even load Instagram. Speeds got worse and worse until, by late last year, it didn’t work at all.
“I finally got somebody at Frontier who was at least honest enough to tell me that the reason I didn’t have any bandwidth was because my neighbors were using it all up,” she said.
When Pennell called Frontier to cancel, pointing out it was silly to continue paying for a nonexistent service, she said their representative demanded a cancellation fee.
In the last decade, the federal government has given Frontier more than $300 million in federal funds to upgrade its network. But, federal auditors have accused the company of misusing grants and wasting millions of dollars. Most of the money Frontier did spend went to fixing its existing network of copper telephone lines.
That network is rickety. State auditors found the company was spending less and less in maintenance as it struggled to pay interest on $10 billion in loans it took out to purchase competitors.
Furthermore, it was unable to handle the surge in data usage as its customers discovered the pleasures of binging Netflix. In turn, those customers have overwhelmed the state utility regulator, the Public Service Commission, with complaints. Some have even taken the company to court, alleging that Frontier failed to install the equipment necessary to provide its advertised speeds.
Before moving to Yellow Spring in Hampshire County, Pennell lived in Mount Vernon, Virginia. Before that, she lived in Israel and the Philippines. “Nowhere in my global travels have I run into worse internet, worse service or worse options than what I’ve run into in Hampshire County,” she said.
“In fact, it’s so bad I’m selling my farm so I can find a different county to live in,” she said. “I honestly can’t take it anymore.”
Pennell believes Hampshire County is missing a huge opportunity. “In this post-COVID19 day and age, a lot of people are realizing they can work anywhere,” she said.
“A lot of high tax-paying jobs are looking to relocate to a better quality of life, and here’s Hampshire County — with everything they need except reliable internet.”
‘You don’t just snap your fingers’
More money is pouring into counties across West Virginia with similar dreams of retooling their economies for the internet era.
At least seven companies, including Hardy Telecommunications, plan to compete in an FCC auction later this year for up to $800 million in federal funding earmarked for broadband expansion in West Virginia.
In the meantime, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been giving grants to counties to create their own fiber-to-the-home networks.
A electricity cooperative in Harrison County won $19 million to build over 400 miles of fiber and Hardy Telecommunications was awarded another $3 million from the USDA to extend its network north into Hampshire County.
Barr of Hardy Telecommunications credits federal support — “critically important,” he said — and local talent for the company’s success. Several of their key employees gave up jobs in other states to come back and serve their hometown.
“It’s not easy, you don’t just snap your fingers and run an internet company,” cautioned Barr. Hardy County is fortunate in that it borders Virginia — and its internet can flow through internet service providers there rather than relying on Frontier’s West Virginia backbone to transport data out-of-state.
That backbone infrastructure was built with federal money, and Frontier is now being sued by a local rival, accusing the company of charging extortionary rates to use it.
Still, Barr said, there’s little else stopping other counties from following their blueprint. Spruce Knob Seneca Rocks Telephone, a similar cooperative, operates in several rural counties to the south of Hardy County.
But in the meantime, many rural counties struggle accessing internet and even basic phone service.
For years, Hampshire County commissioners and 911 dispatchers have been complaining to Frontier of prolonged phone outages. It got so bad that the county told residents to go directly to the nearest fire station in the case of an emergency, instead of calling 911.
In May of last year, landlines across the county were knocked out for 12 hours while Frontier technicians waited for a replacement part to be shipped in.
In a complaint to the state’s utility regulator, Nathan Sions, the county’s 911 director, pointed out that it wasn’t the first time a prolonged outage had been caused by that very same piece of equipment, and called it “unacceptable” that a replacement wasn’t stockpiled locally.
The complaint was resolved in February, Sions said, after a local company “with a vested interest in the community” agreed to provide the facility with a redundant broadband connection.
It was Hardy Telecommunications.