West Virginia state senator is a man with a plan to improve broadband access
West Virginia State Senator Chris Walters is a man with a plan to improve broadband access to residents throughout the state – he just needs to convince his fellow legislators to vote for it – more about that later.
Walters discussed his bill SB459 during the broadband summit at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank last week, the second such summit to be held in as many years. Walters, who represents Kanawha and Putnum counties in the state senate is, among other duties, the chair of the transportation and infrastructure committee, which also includes broadband. But what is broadband? And is it becoming as essential to our daily lives and water and electricity? Walters clearly sees broadband as critical to both residents and the state itself.
“Living in a house at a young age growing up where everything, all your education, all your social life, everything is based around the internet,” said Walters. “The reason we’ve already had so many problems with testing in schools in West Virginia because we didn’t all the technology needed to do the smarter balanced testing.”
Walters credits the West Virginia Broadband Council for providing funding for a number of broadband initiatives around the state, but that council’s tenure ended in 2014. WV Governor Earl Ray Tomblin re-instated the council under a different name, but provided no funding this time, as the state is facing a multimillion dollar deficit and a constitutional mandate to balance the budget.
Walters said broadband access is critical to the state to reduce the dependency on the natural fuels industry and to diversify the economy. His bill would build 2500 miles of middle mile fiber optic cables throughout the state, which he likens to building an interstate highway system. One important difference is the cost.
“To build one mile of water to a house costs between three and five thousand dollars,” said Walters. “To build two miles of interstate is 80 million dollars. To build 2,500 miles of fiber is 78 million dollars.”
Based on that cost comparison, Walters said it should be a no-brainer for the state to undertake such a project, saying it makes more sense for the state to build that middle mile rather than a private company. Once constructed, private companies could then concentrate on providing the last mile fiber optic access directly to the home,
But it’s not just about better internet at home. Walters said improving broadband has the potential to bring many more jobs to the state. For instance, in the telemarketing industry, the accent in parts of West Virginia is considered the most average and therefore highly desirable for their workforce. Walters said that’s just one of the factors that make the state very attractive to business, if we can provide the broadband access needed for those businesses.
“What’s it cost to have that many phone lines,” asks Walters, “to have that much data, to have all that computer system stuff? It is a ton on money! So if not only we have the accents needed, but if we have the lowest, fastest phone line and data cost in the United States, cheapest energy costs and lowest land costs, where you going to open up your centers? You’re going to move them here to West Virginia!”
So what happened to SB459? Walters said it did move through the Transportation and Infrastructure committee and was passed on to the Finance committee. There it ran up against other lawmakers who saw subsidizing local grocery stores as more of a priority. He said that argument resonated more with his fellow senators leaving his bill to die in committee.
Walters is not giving up hope and plans to re-introduce the bill during the next legislative session. But he also asks residents throughout the state to contact their representatives and ask them to support this bill. He’s also well aware that this proposal would mean more competition for established internet providers in the state. He spoke very highly of state senate majority leader Mitch Carmichael who vowed not to interfere with the progress of the bill, even though he is an employee of Frontier Communications.
Walters said according to an economic impact study by West Virginia State University, in the first year after completion of the middle network, the state could see a 1 billion dollar growth in the state’s gross domestic product or GDP. WVNet, part of the state’s higher education policy commission would oversee the project as it moves forward.