Mary Anna Ball knows how difficult having bad internet can be.
At her family home in Barboursville, outages used to be frequent, sometimes lasting a few days at a time. On other days, the internet would go in and out every few minutes, making it hard to do work online. Ball’s family would call Frontier, the only internet service provider willing to connect their home, at least three times a month.
Those issues were especially grating at the height of the pandemic, as Ball finished graduate school and began job hunting. She found herself in a Starbucks parking lot, trying to type and upload her assignments. And then as remote jobs opportunities flourished, West Virginia’s reputation as a place with poor connectivity made it difficult to land a position.
“I didn’t qualify to work remotely for a place that would pay me more — jobs that I was qualified for — because they don’t accept applicants living in West Virginia because of internet reliability,” she said. “They don’t think our access to broadband is reliable enough to hire someone. And that is cutting out jobs that actually pay well.”
Ball’s issues illustrate problems that are common in the state: poor internet access is a frequent occurrence, and limited service can have an impact on quality of life, ranging from trouble watching Netflix, to difficulties completing school work and job applications.
But millions of dollars in federal aid could soon be a game changer.
Since the start of the pandemic, West Virginia has found itself with an increasing amount of federal money at its disposal, large chunks of it earmarked specifically for improving broadband. And the state could soon receive millions more in the coming months, due to a bipartisan infrastructure law passed in 2021, providing West Virginia its first real chance in years to expand and improve internet access. But ultimately, it’s going to take more than just money to get affordable and reliable high-speed service to the communities most in need.
Flooded with broadband funding
West Virginia faces several disadvantages when it comes to internet access: the state is sparsely populated and mountainous, factors that have made it a poor candidate for investment from the private sector. Frontier, the company that has had the largest impact on West Virginia’s internet to this point, largely failed to bring reliable fiber optic connections to the state despite sucking up hundreds of millions in federal dollars. And the federal government has struggled to accurately count exactly how many places in West Virginia need high-speed internet, prompting the state to come up with its own approach.
Improving broadband statewide would be an expensive undertaking, and the state has struggled to truly change its situation or take advantage of the alternative connectivity methods that have emerged in recent years. This began to change during the pandemic, however, as West Virginia found itself flush with federal cash to improve and expand the state’s broadband, defined (for now, at least) at the federal level as high-speed internet with download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of three megabits per second.
Gov. Jim Justice has said that these federal funds, along with some state contributions, are part of a “Billion-dollar Broadband Strategy” aimed at drastically changing access. And more money from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act could soon be on the way to specifically target the West Virginia communities that are most in need.
West Virginia has received nearly $6 million to create strategic plans for both the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program, which calls for all households and businesses to be connected to accessible high-speed internet, and the Digital Equity Act, which will use federal money to help people and communities take full advantage of internet access. The state’s Office of Broadband has been busy building out a framework for how it wants to spend the money, starting with the creation of several new initiatives, including a new digital equity steering committee. For the past few months, local officials have also been holding listening tours around the state to hear about community concerns with broadband access.
And earlier this month, the office opened up applications for the West Virginia Digital Equity Pilot Program, offering $2,500 and $5,000 grants to support community-based projects. The office will spend $25,000 on this effort and applications will be accepted until the middle of June.
All of this is expected to inform multi-year plans that state officials say will aim to expand broadband access rather than just improve the connections already in place.
“We want to be ready for everything that’s coming under the infrastructure act,” said Kelly Workman, the head of the Office of Broadband, during recent legislative interim meetings.
More money will be helpful, but it is just one part of the solution
But this influx of cash is only one factor in improving and expanding internet access in the state. What could arguably matter more in coming years is exactly what ideas local officials and community groups come up with for improving broadband, and if those ideas will actually lead to more and better internet connectivity for every person in West Virginia.
“Everybody wants to do a good job with these funds, and they want their states to be much more connected,” said Nicol Turner Lee, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, and the author of an upcoming book on America’s digital divide. “But these projects are hard, and they’re costly, so going forward it’s going to be important to see how well states make a dent.”
Lee says rural communities face unique hurdles in improving and expanding broadband, including higher rates of poverty and geographic isolation. And those hurdles can have even more of an effect on historically disadvantaged groups like communities of color, and people with lower incomes.
A key question, for West Virginia then, will be how it seeks to address those issues in a state where so many fall into one or many of these vulnerable categories. And it will also need to determine how to prevent a similar situation like it had with Frontier, where one company was able to achieve a stranglehold on the state’s internet.
Still, there is optimism that after decades of broadband missteps, the state can be put on a path to figuring things out. Lee notes that the current national focus on internet access and connectivity is “the greatest downpayment in broadband infrastructure than we’ve ever seen” and that it presents several opportunities, particularly when it comes to job creation.
That’s something that Mary Anna Ball would like to see in Barboursville and around the state. In the past year, she’s found a job working for the state government. And she’s seen improvements at her house when, after yet another outage, Frontier sent a technician who rewired her home. Since then, her internet has been a lot more stable, though it is far from perfect.
“I know it is important for these larger cities to have broadband, but it is important for rural areas too,” she said.
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