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Interest shown in West Virginia broadband expansion project

CHARLESTON — At least six companies are working with the Federal Communications Commission to submit applications to take part in a multi-million-dollar broadband expansion project to push high-speed internet into rural West Virginia.

U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., spoke with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai Friday about where the state stands with the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Auction.

“I had a lengthy conversation with the chairman of the FCC to try to get a real feel for and just make sure West Virginia is not going to get left (out),” Capito said. “As (Pai) said, we’re punching above our weight in this.”

The auction will allocate up to $20.8 billion over a 10-year period to subsidize construction of high-speed gigabit internet in unserved rural areas across the U.S.

The first phase of the two-phase auction starts Oct. 22 and will go toward areas with no service. Phase two will focus on areas with partial service.

West Virginia is eligible for up to $766 million in federal funding available over 10 years through the Opportunity Fund auction, the 13th highest amount available to a state. If companies are able to successfully bid on broadband projects in unserved and underserved census tracts in West Virginia, it could expand broadband to up to 121,000 homes and benefit as many as 221,000 state residents.

Capito said she has talked with six companies preparing applications for the Opportunity Fund auction and a seventh company strongly considering applying. She declined to identify the companies, though she said they were ready to go.

“Most of them feel very confident that they’re going to be accepted as an eligible (company),” Capito said.

As an added incentive for companies to apply for the Opportunity Fund for West Virginia broadband projects, Gov. Jim Justice and a bipartisan group of state elected officials and legislative leadership announced an executive order removing regulatory caps on the West Virginia Development Authority’s Broadband Loan Insurance Program. Republican and Democratic lawmakers will introduce a bill next year to permanently remove or change those caps.

“With the Governor’s insurance proposal, it gives a bigger punch to the applicants that they’re going to be able to be successful here,” Capito said.

According to the FCC, there are 500 applicants for the Opportunity Fund auction nationwide. Capito said the FCC is being rigorous in its application process, including returning applications for not being properly completed and helping applicants with the process.

“Many of them were incomplete and received communications from the FCC telling them what they need to do to get their application in the completed and accepted category, because the FCC is being very rigorous in their requirements,” Capito said. “Of course, that is what you would want. They also have offered phone calls for technical assistance from the FCC.”

West Virginia’s congressional delegation, including Capito and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., have been working to secure money and support for broadband expansion in West Virginia, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic has had an effect on health, education and commerce. Telehealth services have become more in demand, many students are virtually learning and companies are having more of their employees work from home.

According to the FCC, broadband is defined as 25 megabits per second for minimum downloads and 3 megabits per second for upload speeds. According to a 2020 report by the West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council, the 2017 U.S. Census American Community Survey lists West Virginia as the fourth lowest ranked state for percentage of households with and subscription to some form of internet service. The percentage in West Virginia was 76 percent, while the U.S. average was 83.5 percent.

Many ways are available to deliver internet services, including wireless through 4G and 5G cell phone networks and through satellites similar to how cars get Sirius/XM, but West Virginia’s terrain makes these services problematic. Capito said that delivering fiber wired services is still the best option for the state.

“Some people go, ‘well, that’s old technology,'” Capito said. “We live in mountains and valleys, and some of the newer technologies of wireless and satellite may not work for us.”

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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