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State broadband access efforts still far from reaching goal...

By Jeremiah Sherlor, The Exponent Telegram

CLARKSBURG — Earlier this month, the Federal Communications Commission announced it had set aside $22 million of their Connect America Fund for expanding broadband Internet access in rural parts of West Virginia.

But even as the FCC’s initiative indicates progress, local planning and development officials say broadband availability in the region is far from where it needs to be.

"It used to be that in order to track economic investment in a community, you needed water, sewer and power," said Stephen Foster, executive director for Upshur County’s Economic Development Authority. "Now you need broadband access. It’s of equal importance, if not more so."

Bob Jacobus, community development specialist with the Region VII Planning and Development Council, pointed to the results of a recent survey conducted by the council. The survey attempted to assess the availability and speed of Internet access in Tucker, Randolph, Barbour, Upshur, Lewis, Gilmer and Braxton counties.

"What we discovered in the study is that advertised speeds and real speeds out in the field are completely different," Jacobus said.

Jacobus said the report showed the vast majority of the region’s residents having Internet speeds below the federal definition for broadband access.

Jacobus expressed concern that a lack of broadband access could impair educational and economic development.

"Children need broadband for education and for them to be competitive in the future," he said. "The need is great in our whole region."

Jim Hall, executive director of the Region VI Planning and Development Council, echoed Jacobus’ concerns. Region VI includes Monongalia, Marion, Harrison, Doddridge, Preston and Taylor Counties.

"Our plans show that the two biggest complaints that residents in Region VI have is the speed and reliability of the broadband," Hall said.

Hall added that the most rural counties are of the most concern. He also said demand across the region is high.

"People in our region that we surveyed, they really want broadband. And if broadband was available, they would accept broadband," he said. "There needs to be more money put into broadband, and that’s what was expressed by the residents of our region."

Hall said he would like to see providers such as Frontier "commit to improving service" in the areas "where the need is the greatest."

"If the region is to be successful at all, we’re going to need that broadband service," he said.

Dan Page, a spokesman for Frontier, said that, in addition to using the money from the Connect America Fund, the company has invested heavily in expanding access to broadband for West Virginia residents.

"We’ve made a substantial investment in West Virginia," he said.

Page pointed to a 2010 acquisition in which Frontier took over a number of markets previously operated by Verizon.

"At that time, 62 percent of the households in West Virginia had access to broadband (in the acquired markets)," Page said. "Today, 88 percent of the households in those acquired territories have access to broadband."

According to Page, Frontier also has started offering a satellite Internet service for residents of remote parts of the state.

"We are trying to provide broadband access to West Virginia households and businesses in multiple ways to give people a chance to get online," Page said.

But even with the ongoing efforts by Frontier and the FCC, Jacobus expressed skepticism due to some of the logistical challenges in bringing Internet access to more people in the state.

"There’s a need for the Connect America fund, and there’s places for that need," he said. "But I’m not so sure there’s a good delivery mechanism to get those products to the people."

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