More than two million people across the Ohio Valley live in areas that lack any option for fast and reliable internet service.
This week some of them had a chance to tell a member of the Federal Communications Commission what that means for their work, studies, and everyday life.
The Appalachian Connectivity Summit in Marietta, Ohio, explored possible local solutions. But the event came during a week that also saw large internet providers suing to stop one way to connect more people to broadband service.
FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn sat in a high school auditorium as people from around the region shared their stories of life off the information grid. Herron Linscott, a rising sophomore at Federal Hocking High School, in Athens County, Ohio, talked about how the lack of internet service affect her studies.
Linscott said she tries to download or get hard copies of as much material as she can before leaving school in order to be able to complete her teachers’ assignments.
“They’ll say, 'That worksheet’s online,' or 'That video is on Google classroom.’ 'Well, there’s just no way. I can’t get to it,'" she said.
Clyburn said she was “moved and troubled” by what she heard. “We have some fundamental problems that we have yet to address,” she said. “We need our communities to be connected.”
New Law, New Lawsuit
West Virginia State Delegate Roger Hanshaw sees limited broadband access as a major problem for people and businesses near his home in Clay County. Hanshaw said that communities like his are being shut out of the modern economy. With few options for a good internet connection, there’s no chance of getting a job in growing areas like tech, e-commerce, or customer service.
In Clay County, he said, internet access is so unreliable that stores often can’t accept payments. “There’s just simply no excuse for service being so poor that we can’t process a credit card sale,” Hanshaw said.
So Hanshaw sponsored a bill, now a law, encouraging locally-owned cooperatives to expand broadband service.
But one section of the new law is being challenged by some of the state’s biggest internet providers, including Frontier Communications.
Frontier has recently been in the news for allegedly overcharging customers in West Virginia, and firing the West Virginia Senate President, a former sales manager, shortly after Hanshaw’s bill passed.
Elena Kilpatrick, a Senior Vice President at Frontier, said the company is now suing the state over a provision that would allow others access to utility poles.
“Those requirements are inconsistent with pre-existing requirements established by the FCC,” Kilpatrick said. “We’re simply seeking a ruling that the federal requirements prevail.”
Clyburn said she agrees that unskilled people should not be climbing utility poles but said, “I think we can work through the rest. We need to address issues causing the challenges, and gaps, and expenses that should not be.”
For more than a decade, Christopher Mitchell has been working on broadband expansion issues with the Minnesota-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Mitchell gave the connectivity summit’s keynote address, and Frontier got a mention in his talk.
Mitchell argued that too much of the federal money intended to expand rural internet access goes to large companies who’ve been building substandard networks.
The problem with counting on large companies like Frontier to build rural broadband, Mitchell said, comes down to a question of money and incentives. Urban areas have more customers in a smaller area, which means they’re more appealing to companies that are publicly traded and profit-driven.
As good and capable as Frontier’s employees may be, Mitchell said, “in our economic system, they have a responsibility to get a good return on their investments for their shareholders. And if we’re trying to solve connectivity for rural America, trying to get them to do it is the wrong approach.”
Mitchell hopes that more money will go toward local governments and cooperatives, who have more incentive to build long-term solutions, including fiber optic networks that have the speed, capacity, and durability to meet communities’ needs for decades to come.