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05/17/2011
Broadband crucial to W.Va. economic development, survey finds

By Eric Eyre
The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- County economic development officials rate broadband Internet service as more important than road improvements, and water and sewer system infrastructure, when trying to persuade companies to locate and create jobs in West Virginia, according to a Citynet survey.

Seventy-eight percent of economic development leaders said companies consider high-speed Internet a "high priority" when deciding to locate in an area. New business prospects also want broadband that is affordable and fast, 66 percent of survey respondents said.

"The results point to the emergence of broadband Internet access as a crucial factor in today's economic developing," said Jack Canfield, whose company conducted the survey for Citynet, a Bridgeport-based broadband provider. "Twice as many leaders familiar with programs in other states believe the cost of large-capacity broadband service in West Virginia is more expensive than it is in adjoining states."

More than 40 percent of those surveyed described their local broadband service as "not very good."

"If 40 percent of people say, 'I don't have the tools in the toolbox to sell this,' it won't result in jobs," said Tom Susman, a Citynet consultant.

Some economic development officials said they had lost business prospects because of a lack of broadband availability, or broadband that was too slow or costly.

Survey participants, who were asked to submit anonymous written comments, also remarked:

"I have a project pending and will probably lose it based on the costs of broadband."

"The lack of high-speed service in rural areas totally extinguishes the possibility of new small business start-ups."

"We were looking at a possible location of a data center, and the lack of affordable, large capacity broadband was a deciding factor in them not locating in West Virginia."

Susman said companies that decide not to locate in West Virginia because of insufficient broadband service wouldn't likely give the state a second look.

"They're asking if we have broadband, and if you don't, it puts you at a disadvantage," Susman said.

For months, Citynet executives have sharply criticized the state's use of a $126 million federal stimulus funds to expand broadband, saying the grant solely benefits Frontier Communications. Frontier is building the broadband network, which will link to "anchor institutions" -- schools, libraries, state agencies, health care facilities and public safety offices.

Citynet executives say the money would be better spent on building a "middle-mile" broadband network that Citynet and other telecommunications providers could tap into.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.

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