High-speed broadband infrastructure for our economic future

In our expanding digital world, broadband access has become a vital necessity for consumers and businesses alike. This once nice-to-have service has morphed into a critical infrastructure component and many states are supporting broadband infrastructure development to remain economically competitive.

Across the nation, millions of households are receiving 20, 50 and even 100 megabit broadband service while West Virginia households struggle to attain the FCC current definition of 5 megabits of service. I have and continue to be a huge proponent of getting better broadband service in West Virginia, especially in our educational system – so that we can level the playing field and ensure all West Virginians have the same levels of access to information.

The key to improving broadband service in West Virginia is to create demand from both consumers and businesses. While we are currently behind other states, I can confidently say that we are improving. In March 2011, the state released $3.4 million from a special account to reimburse Frontier Communications for expanding high-speed Internet across West Virginia.

The state has been working through various avenues to not only increase and upgrade the Internet infrastructure, but also to increase demand by creating online “products” to entice citizens to purchase broadband. We have been working hard to let citizens know that with broadband they could quickly accomplish a variety of tasks and find much needed information at the click of a button.

Broadband not only enhances the convenience of our everyday lives in our home, but it also serves as a vital component to attracting businesses to West Virginia. In the past, to attract a business you needed a road to get there, electricity, water, and sewer. Our mindset must now be to include broadband on any project in which the state is involved in the expansion of utilities. If we move forward with that mentality, we will be able leverage our infrastructure capabilities effectively.

With that in mind, the state is working hard to establish its middle mile infrastructure. When referring to broadband networks, the “middle mile” is the segment of a telecommunications network that connects a network operator’s core network to the local network plant.

A middle mile broadband system is very much like a highway transportation system. It would never make sense for each community or county to fund and build a collection of private highways to Charleston, or Morgantown, or Pittsburgh. By building common roads, everyone benefits and the costs are shared in support of commerce, transportation, and access. Middle mile systems do the same thing. They provide a common transport system that lowers cost for all users while providing affordable services.

West Virginia capitalized on using stimulus funds for middle mile projects under the Broadband Initiatives Program. The State continues to work with companies to develop the middle mile infrastructure with the goal being the development of the last mile infrastructure.

Recent estimates show West Virginia could save $20 million to $30 million per year or more on broadband costs if we had a competitive open access middle mile network. It is estimated that our state could develop a statewide middle mile system for approximately $250 million. Keeping in mind the annual costs savings, over 30 years that’s only $8.3 million per year. Obviously from a financial standpoint, this makes pushing for these initiatives a win-win scenario for policy makers.

While we have made progress in widespread deployment of broadband across West Virginia, there is still lots of work to be done. I am confident that we have the resources to make this happen as well as a sound fiscal plan to make it affordable. It is simply a matter of all stakeholders coming together and finding the best solution to benefit the people of our state.

— John Unger represents the 16th District in the West Virginia Senate, where he serves as majority leader. Write him at: John R. Unger II, State Senate, Room 227M, Building 1 State Capitol Complex Charleston, WV 25305.

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