For years, West Virginia has relied on a group of volunteers — with almost no funding — to address the lack of reliable, high-speed internet access in rural areas of the state.
Predictably, that approach has not worked.
Frontier Communications, the dominant, and often only, internet provider in rural communities, is bankrupt and under siege. Its customers complain of outages and snail-like speeds, and despite hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants over the last decade, West Virginia remains near the bottom in state rankings of internet availability.
But now, the state’s strategy appears to finally be changing. The West Virginia Department of Commerce has quietly created a new Office of Broadband and hired a full-time staff of four, including a well-regarded local telecommunications executive. He will now have the unenviable task of coordinating the state’s efforts as it attempts to solve one of its most pressing, and intractable, economic development challenges.
“I just want to inject a sense of urgency into this,” Commerce Secretary Ed Gaunch said during a meeting with state lawmakers in July when he proposed the office. Then, it was just becoming apparent how a lack of broadband access was going to devastate students and hobble business in rural communities as they attempted to adapt to an online world amidst a pandemic.
At the time, a member of the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission who was in the meeting, Matt Turner, gave a prescient warning about the need to move fast: “The pandemic has exacerbated the issues we’re facing [like] the homework gap and the digital divide… the timing is really critical,” said Turner, a former chief of staff at Marshall University.
But Gov. Jim Justice’s initial efforts to address the problem have fallen short. He promised $50 million in CARES Act funding to connect homes and businesses, but by the end of last year had only allocated two-thirds of it — and most of that ended up going to state agencies which are largely using it for unrelated purposes.
He also signed an executive order to make it easier for local telecommunications companies to access federal subsidies. But Frontier, the very same company that has been blamed for causing West Virginia’s internet woes in the first place, gobbled up a majority of that money anyway.
It is unlikely that the Office of Broadband has had much influence on the governor’s agenda so far. Its director, Charlie Dennie, only started work a few months ago. And whether it will play a larger role going forward is still unclear. Commerce Department spokesman Andy Malinoski — also a former Frontier public relations director — has denied repeated requests from Mountain State Spotlight to interview Dennie.
But that hasn’t stopped Dennie from going out and promoting the issue. On Tuesday morning, he was at a Holiday Inn in South Charleston, explaining the benefits of the city’s new municipal fiber network to a crowd of local business leaders.
“The remarks I’m making today are my personal opinions,” he said. “So don’t blame the governor.”
Meet ‘Gigabit Charlie’
Dennie has never hidden his disdain for Frontier.
For decades, he not only competed against them as an executive at Alpha Technologies, a telecommunications company in Putnam County, but also railed against their business model in a series of op-eds and blog posts.
“The international, modern-day, robber barons dominating internet delivery have no obligation or incentive to meet our needs,” he wrote in The State Journal in 2018.
While Frontier was extracting millions in profits from West Virginia to fund a calamitous expansion to coastal markets, Dennie advocated for a new way of delivering internet — one that doesn’t rely on Frontier’s aging infrastructure, or its connections to Wall Street.
It’s called municipal broadband, a new model for providing internet service in which cities build and own their own fiber networks — and then lease access to telecommunications companies. Towns that do this would no longer be at the mercy of Frontier, forced to beg for basic maintenance where Frontier offers service and out of luck in areas where the company doesn’t.
“Other communities are taking control of their economic destinies and solving their own problems,” he wrote in the same newspaper in 2019.
Dennie cites Ammon, Idaho, as an example: a 16,500 person town that built “the best fiber-optic network in the country.”
“We’ve just found a way to make it a true public infrastructure, like a road,” the town’s technology director told the business news website Fast Company in 2019.
Now, Dennie can point closer to home. His friends call him “Gigabit Charlie” for his prescient advocacy for fiber, and his long-standing efforts to build it in the Kanawha Valley are now paying off. His old company, Alpha Technologies, recently-completed a 35-mile fiber loop connecting Charleston businesses, and South Charleston has invested $100,000 to build its own municipal network. They’re already connecting local apartment complexes.
“I believe that this legislature, and this governor, and our humble little office of broadband are going to solve the puzzle of rural broadband that has plagued this state for the last 30 years,” he told a crowd of wowed local business leaders that morning at the Holiday Inn, and promised that a third of West Virginians will live in communities that are building municipal broadband within the next year.
‘A boatload of money’
Not everyone shares Dennie’s ambitions. Nearly half of the 50 states have outlawed municipal broadband, and the Federal Communications Commission — led, until recently, by Verizon executive and Trump appointee Ajit Pai — has not been supportive.
But that could change. Pai has stepped down, and President Joe Biden has replaced him with Jessica Rosenworcel, who has joined Biden in expressing her support for municipal broadband, particularly in rural areas of the country.
The transition of power at the FCC couldn’t come at a more important time for West Virginia. It will be up to the federal regulator to decide whether to approve Frontier’s winnings of more than $250 million in federal subsidies during last year’s reverse auction. U.S. Sen. Shelley Capito, the state’s broadband advisory council, dozens of state lawmakers and several local governments have all written letters to the FCC asking the agency to consider rejecting Frontier’s win.
If that money is released, it could instead go to local telecommunications companies willing to fulfill Dennie’s vision of community internet — like Hardy Telecommunications, a nonprofit cooperative that has made Hardy County the envy of rural communities across West Virginia.
But, in the meantime, Dennie has his hands full. A reporter for Mountain State Spotlight caught up with him outside the Holiday Inn conference room on Tuesday. Dennie said he went to work in October, working daily out of his new sixth-floor offices in the capital complex.
His staff has been making maps to help state lawmakers identify areas of West Virginia that have been passed over by the FCC’s latest round of funding. And he said he’s been busy answering phone calls from community leaders across the state, wondering how they too can create their own broadband networks.
“There are a lot of people in the legislature who like the idea. Counties and local governments like the idea,” he said.
His stance on Frontier seems to have softened. “Frontier employs a lot of people,” he acknowledged.
But, he thinks the state can do better. “There’s not a single solution to this, we’ve been looking for a single solution for a very long time, and — the facts are the facts — we’ve spent a boatload of money, and we haven’t gotten the results that we want.”
Big moves ahead for state lawmakers
West Virginia has certainly heard its share of extravagant promises before and been disappointed by the results. Frontier promised to wire a vast majority of its new customers when it entered West Virginia a decade ago.
But this time could be different. For one thing, the state now has a full-time director working on the problem. For years it outsourced broadband planning to a group of volunteers and out-of-state consultants.
“It’s really difficult for a volunteer staff,” Ron Pearson, a retired federal bankruptcy judge who is on the council, said last year. “Broadband is so important to West Virginia and it needs to be supported by not only a director, but several key staff positions” he said. Now, he appears to have gotten his wish.
And, in the past, the state was reluctant to spend any money at all on the issue, instead relying on federal programs that always seemed to backfire. Now, Republican legislators have committed to allocate $150 million from state coffers.
They just need to figure out how to spend it.
The details of any new program will become clearer soon. Dennie said that there’s been a “freewheeling discussion” among state officials and lawmakers about how a new program would work. So far, it’s happening behind closed doors. But the new state Senate president, Craig Blair, has made broadband expansion one of his top priorities in the upcoming legislative session, and it is likely this debate will spill out into the Capitol chambers and committee rooms as lawmakers hammer together a deal.
One of the places they’ll be looking to for inspiration is New Hampshire. Like Justice, Granite State leaders committed $50 million in CARES Act funding to broadband expansion. Unlike Justice, who has spent the money on trail maintenance and plugging holes in the state budget, New Hampshire devised a coherent program to do it — giving money to towns and telecommunications companies willing to build fiber in rural areas.
Dennie is optimistic. Regardless of what happens during the legislative session, his vision is already becoming reality. Putnam County voted just last week to spend it’s share of CARES Act funds on a new municipal broadband network.
If Dennie gets his wish, Putnam County is just the beginning. Dennie is 72, and at the age when many telecommunications executives might retire. But the St. Albans native is not slowing down. “This is an opportunity to make a real difference,” he said.
“How often do we get the opportunity to do that?”