By: Lydia Crawley
The Parsons Advocate
Project Coordinator Carrie Wallace from the Region VII Planning and Development Council provided an update on the results of a series of Broadband Listening sessions that the organization had conducted in the area as part of an upcoming state-wide roll out of Broadband internet access throughout the state of West Virginia.
“We are here to provide an overview of our Broadband Listening Tour that began in March,” Wallace said. “That includes Barbour, Braxton, Lewis, Gilmore, Randolph, Tucker and Upshur Counties.”
Wallace explained the program and its funding during the meeting. “The Broadband Equity Access and Deployment Program provides 42.5 billion to expand high speed internet access by funding, planning, infrastructure deployment, mapping, equity and adoption activities in all 50 states,” Wallace said. “The State of West Virginia is currently participating…and as a first step, has applied for five million in initial planning funds which will support the development of a five year action plan.”
Wallace described the five-year action plan and the state’s plans to get broadband internet to all corners of West Virginia. “The five-year action plan will establish the state’s high-speed internet goals and priorities and serve as a comprehensive needs assessment that will inform West Virginians high speed internet infrastructure expansion and the proposals for implementation funds,” Wallace said.
Wallace also said that the program was receiving additional funding. “The additional Equity Act provides 2.7 Billion to establish three grant programs that promote digital equity and inclusion,” Wallace said. “They aim to insure all people and communities have the skills, technology and capacity needed to reap in the full benefits of our digital economy.”
“The West Virginia Office of Broadband is currently implementing the State Digital Equity Planning Grant program which is centered on the development and implementation of digital equity and inclusion initiatives that focus on the covered population and those include those who live in households that are below 150% of the poverty level, aging individuals, veterans, individuals with disabilities, individuals with language barriers, individuals who are members of racial or ethnic minority groups and individuals who reside in primarily rural areas,” Wallace said, “which includes all of Region VII’s counties.”
Wallace went on the explain how her office had received grant funding to assist the state in data collection from the communities to assist in assessing the needs of the state in regards to the broadband roll out goal. This resulted, according to Wallace, in the series of listening sessions that were held across the region. “So, feedback from these sessions have been submitted to state partners,” Wallace said, “to consider while developing their five year action plan to deploy broadband internet access border to border across the State of West Virginia. Between March 29 and May 31, Region VII held 13 listening sessions across our region…During the course of those 13 meetings, a total of 242 residents were reached.”
Wallace explained how the data was handled following the sessions. “Following each Listening Session we returned to our office and we immediately reported your feedback via the stat’s online submission form,” Wallace said. “The form mirrors the questions that were asked during the listening sessions.”
Wallace assured that her office did not hold back when submitting the public’s responses to the state. “As promised, we didn’t hold back,” Wallace said, “and often submitted your direct quotes regardless of how forward they were. After all, this was your opportunity to have your voices heard and we wanted to be sure stake holders heard exactly what you had to say and that included the good, the bad and the ugly.”
Wallace said the final report was submitted to the state June 1. “Our final report was submitted to the West Virginia Office of Broadband June 1st following our final listening session on May 31,” Wallace said.
Wallace also outlined portions of the report. “Please note that the report format was provided by the state,” Wallace said. “This is a date summary that the state requested that we fill out. You will see we are Region VII, we had 13 listening sessions. These are all the locations where the sessions were held. We noted that we were going to have one virtual follow-up session, which is today, this meeting. Our covered population is listed here and then key themes and barriers and needs were all outlined. Keep in mind, this does not include all of the feedback that was submitted by the state, of course, because as I mentioned, following every session, we came back and submitted your direct feedback via the prior form we reviewed.”
Wallace explained the key themes, barriers and needs outlined in the report. “So for the key themes, barriers and needs we noted the following,” Wallace said. “Many parts of our region not only lacked access to internet, but also landline telephones, cell phones and radios. We heard this in many of our listening sessions. The current infrastructure that is in place cannot accommodate additional households unless another resident disconnects service. ISPs only make improvements in areas where they have competition. When they are the only option, they rely on antiquated equipment and technology. West Virginians in our region are left behind due to inadequate internet access.
Residents don’t have the option to efficiently work from home. Our students lost out on two years of education during the COVID-19 pandemic. This has led to a decrease in population. Business owners are relocating to places where broadband is considered a basic utility. We can’t attract new businesses to the area without the same offerings. The fiber infrastructure is in place, owners of the fiber need to be required to lease or sell access to smaller ISPs that are interested and willing to bring it to the home. If ISPs are receiving grant funds, they must be held accountable to provide what they promised. If they don’t they should be subject to hefty fines. Affordability differs greatly from household to household. This must be considered when calculating plan rates. And finally, residents in our area repeatedly expressed frustration with Frontier’s internet and customer service and questioned why they continued to receive grant funds.”
Wallace said that Frontier wasn’t the only company that respondents voiced concerns about. “Keep in mind, Frontier wasn’t the only company that we heard concerns and frustrations about,” Wallace said, “But it was overwhelming the response, the negative response, we got for Frontier through all of our listening sessions. So, we wanted to make sure that was noted.” Wallace also said it was noted in the report that the idea of a traveling technician to assist with service and repairs would be useful in the more remote areas.
Wallace said the state would begin distributing surveys for those who were unable to attend a listening session beginning the week of June 19th. “The state procured a survey firm to create a survey to reach residents that were unable to attend our regional meetings.” Wallace said the additional data collection period would run for 30 days followed by the state drafting their five-year action plan. The plan, according to Wallace, is estimated to be available beginning in August of 2023.
For more information about the Broadband rollout or Region VII, visit their website at https://www.regionvii.com.