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01/24/2016
Middle Mile Bill on broadband could become West Virginia's saving grace

January 24, 2016, The Register Herald

West Virginia is the glorious state I call home. Much like many of the other West Virginia residents, I want to see the state grow and succeed. The lack of technology has been an enormous deterrent to the progress of West Virginia.

West Virginia ranks 52nd in connectivity behind Guam and Puerto Rico, 51st in technology behind American Samoa and 47th in competition per the FCC. With those numbers, West Virginia is not competitive in bringing jobs to the state to diversify our economy in this 21st century global economy.

A few Internet providers have a monopoly on large portions of the state with their services. Stunningly, 56 percent of West Virginia residents lack access to high-speed Internet. It was telling when Rob Hinton, executive director of the Upshur County Development Authority, pointed out that more than 1.1 million West Virginians do not have access to broadband as defined by the FCC.

Senator Chris WaltersThe broadband expansion bill, nicknamed the "Middle Mile Bill," is being supported by both AARP and Generation West Virginia. The bill will provide West Virginia with the fastest and most affordable fiber optic backbone in the United States, and taxpayers would not have to pay a dime.

The bill would be funded by federal grant money and performance bonds. The 2,500 miles of fiber would cost $78 million to be constructed. The fiber network would operate like an interstate through each of the counties. The private service providers would then pay a rental fee to extend their services from their networks to the rural areas.

An economic study completed by West Virginia State University showed that within the first year, the broadband bill would bring in 4,000 permanent jobs to the state and nearly $1 billion for the state's GDP.

Job opportunities and a new economic income source are desperately needed for the state. In today's economy, this is the only way to diversify and accelerate job creation.

The economy and job force are not the only areas this legislation would benefit. West Virginians' health and education would greatly improve from the passing of this bill. Health clinics in rural areas of the state have been equipped with cameras that allow for health specialists to observe and interact with patients without the patients having to travel out of their local area. Multiple cameras are currently inactive though because the Internet connections in our rural areas are too weak.

The problems do not end there. West Virginia's education is crumbling. The FCC has stated that West Virginia has the largest "homework gap" in the nation. The "homework gap" is when a student goes home and cannot access the Internet to do homework. The broadband bill would bring high-speed Internet to the youth in the state and close the gap.

It will also help individuals complete online college courses to increase higher education in the state.

With employment, economics, health and education on the line, I am taking the necessary actions to push the "Middle Mile Bill" in both the House and the Senate. To discuss broadband further, I can be contacted by email at chris.walters@wvsenate.gov or my office number, 304-357-7866.

To show your support for the broadband bill, you can attend broadband day at the Legislature Jan. 26, or you can contact your local delegates and senators.

— Sen Chris Walters, R-Putnam, is chair of the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

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