Making the final broadband connection in Pocahontas
The good news is all students in Pocahontas county will have access to high speed broadband beginning with the resumption of classes this fall. The bad news is that many of those students won’t have that kind of access at home. This is just one of the challenges discussed at the broadband summit hosted by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank last week.
So what exactly is broadband? According to Jim Martin, CEO of Citynet, the state defines broadband as speeds of 4mbps download and 1mbps upload. While some in Pocahontas can get download speeds close to the 4mbps mark, many don’t come anywhere close to getting the minimum uplod d speed. And that lack of broadband capability has real consequences for Pocahontas, as pointed out by NRAO business manager Mike Holstine.
“Right now, I know there are 16 businesses that have opted out of Pocahontas County because they didn’t have broadband access that they require,” he said. “Sixteen businesses in this county is huge. We’re geographically isolated…yeah, we are. But isn’t that the ability to showcase technology in microsm? We have two major industries in this county; and I’ll brag, we’re one of them – we’re the premiere scientific radio astronomy observatory in the world. We have the premiere ski and 4-season resort on the east coast just over the mountain.”
And it’s not just businesses, as Holstine explains the concept of take rate.
“Take rate – that’s the number of subscribers who actually take fiber to the home [FTTH] if their household has that ability,” said Holstine. “For rural network builders, and those who serve large apartment complexes [such as Snowshoe], exceeds 50% take rate; I think that’s pretty important and pretty impressive.”
Yet, Holstine says West Virginia had the lowest broadband rollout of any state in the first quarter of 2014, and in Pocahontas County, only 4% met the standard for broadband availability.
There is an existing “middle mile” network that connects both Pocahontas and Randolph counties – part of which was built with federal stimulus money, the rest with corporate funding from Frontier Communications, the primary internet provider in Pocahontas. The challenge to providers is to provide the “last mile” connectivity, i.e., making the connection from the middle mile network to the end user’s home and/or devices. Representatives from Frontier, Citynet, Spruce Knob Seneca Rocks Telephone, Shentel all added to the discussion in talking about how each has tried to meet the challenges of providing reliable and affordable broadband throughout the state. Derek Barr from Hardy Telecommunications and Gideon Hiner from Highland Telephone Cooperative were also invited to add their perspectives, even though neither company has any current interests in Pocahontas.
Judge Dan O’Hanlon, chairman of the West Virginia broadband deployment council believes they can demonstrate that is feasible to provide broadband via fiber to the home in Pocahontas County.
“So we’re looking at using schools and libraries as the hub since they’ve got the fiber to them already, we’re looking at taking it from the hub out to places where students live,” said O’Hanlon. “If you’ve got kids or grandkids in the school then maybe can figure out a way, if the FCC will allow us to do this, Tony and Mike and I have decided we’re going to take one of the 100 % funded studies and pick a town in Pocahontas county and come and do a study about how we can take fiber to every home in that town and see how we can do that.”
“You may think that’s a pipe dream, but I co-chaired the Reconnecting McDowell [WV]; Shentel [cable company] pulled 11,000 fiber to the home in Welch, WV. Every single person in Welch, WV, no cost to them, got fiber pulled to their home. It can be done in WV, you just have to keep after it.”
O’Hanlon says the need to get broadband access to every home is similar to that of getting water to every home – not always an easy process, but one that can be done.