Now more than ever before, we have the world at our fingertips. But for thousands of West Virginians reliable broadband is still an aspiration instead of a reality.
The fight for fair access to the internet is the modern day equivalent to the fight for rural electrification we waged nearly 100 years ago. In 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Rural Electrification Act into law as part of the New Deal.
When this law created the Rural Electrification Administration, less than 10 percent of West Virginia had electricity, lagging far behind the rest of the country. This piece of legislation literally turned the lights on in West Virginia and helped bring us into the modern age.
And like electricity back then, high-speed Internet access is not a luxury but rather a critical lifeline to society. While we love our tall mountains, beautiful forests, rolling hills and roaring rapids, they unfortunately make broadband deployment astronomically expensive. That’s led to a growing divide between the broadband rich and broadband poor.
As a result, as West Virginians we have found ourselves on the wrong side of this digital divide. West Virginia ranks 45th in the country for access to broadband connectivity and nearly 40 percent of rural West Virginia residents lack adequate access to broadband level service.
That’s why one of my major efforts as a United States Senator is ensuring that every West Virginian has affordable, reliable broadband internet so that we all can thrive and compete in the 21st Century economy.
Over the last decade, industry has made great strides in building out broadband infrastructure, and agencies like the United States Department of Agriculture and the Federal Communication Commission have invested in expanding broadband access, but significant coverage gaps still exist in West Virginia and across rural America.
It’s impossible to fill these gaps if we don’t know where coverage exists and where it doesn’t, which is why accurate coverage maps should be the first and most important step when addressing coverage gaps.
That’s how we started expanding electricity in the 1930s; we built detailed coverage maps. Unfortunately, the maps government agencies use today to assess broadband coverage are incorrect and need to be updated.
As the only member of Congress to formally challenge the Federal Communication Commission broadband coverage maps, I have been working hard to ensure these maps depict the real-world experiences of West Virginians so that our state is in a better position to receive the critical funding it needs to deploy broadband.
I’ve sent the FCC 147 letters with results from speed tests submitted by constituents from across West Virginia to highlight incorrect broadband coverage maps of West Virginia and support the need for the formation of a public feedback system to better assess broadband coverage across rural states like West Virginia.
This week, the USDA announced that Hampshire County and Hardy Telecommunications have been awarded a $3 million Community Connect grant to expand rural broadband access to 600 homes, farms and businesses across the county.
Our local leaders have worked diligently to secure this funding and I am proud of the work they have done over the past year. This adds to the recent $32 million investment into West Virginia I helped secure through the USDA’s ReConnect Program.
I’m also working to ensure that West Virginia gets its fair share of the FCC’s broadband investments. In October, I invited FCC Jessica Rosenworcel to West Virginia to show her firsthand the connectivity challenges that our families and businesses face every day.
Our first stop of the day was in Hampshire County, where she participated in a public town hall with me and heard how West Virginians in Romney and beyond want reliable broadband. I was proud to show off West Virginia to Commissioner Rosenworcel and I know she enjoyed her time in our wonderful state and is committed to bridging the digital divide in places like West Virginia.
While we still have a lot of work left to do, we have taken many positive steps forward in our effort to bring better broadband coverage to West Virginia. I will continue to advocate for programs and funding that expand broadband coverage so all West Virginians can connect to the 21st century and no West Virginian is left behind.
Join me and help in the fight for more broadband in West Virginia by going to: https://www.manchin.senate.gov/speedtest and submitting your speed test.