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W.Va. decides to develop its own plan for broadband access

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For the first time, West Virginia will soon have a statewide plan to spur the expansion of high-speed Internet to its residents. 

Eleven regional planning agencies have been surveying residents and businesses about broadband Internet service. Those individual studies will be incorporated into a larger statewide plan later this year.

A federal stimulus grant is paying for the project.

"The overall goal is to improve broadband infrastructure and the demand for broadband through good planning," Tony Simental, state GIS coordinator, at a conference Thursday in Charleston. "We're looking at what's there and what do we need?"

The Region 9 Planning and Development Council, which covers West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle, has already finished its study -- the only regional planning agency to complete the assignment so far.

According to a survey, 57 percent of residents in Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan counties said they were dissatisfied with the cost of high-speed Internet, while more than 60 percent of respondents reported the weren't happy with the number of companies that offered broadband service in the region.

"If you're in a rural area, chances are you don't have access to broadband and you're going to be dissatisfied," Simental said.

On the other hand, more than half of Eastern Panhandle residents said they were satisfied with Internet speeds and reliability, according to the survey.

Meanwhile, 32 percent of business owners in the region said they were upset with the cost of broadband service. And 46 percent of businesses said they wanted faster Internet speeds.

Simental said the Region 3 planning council, which covers Kanawha, Putnam, Boone and Clay counties, expects to complete its broadband plan by the end of the month. The 11 planning agencies each received $50,000 grants. The regional development councils have until September to finish their studies.

Economic developers, government officials, librarians, information technology directors, local chambers of commerce and business owners are helping the planning agencies with the regional broadband plans, Simental said.

"The planning councils are more familiar with the lay of the land," Simental said. "We're going to use the 11 regional plans as a foundation for a state plan. Currently, there is no state plan."

Also at Thursday's conference -- organized by the Central Appalachian Regional Network, a Huntington-based nonprofit group: 

* Dan O'Hanlon, chairman of the West Virginia Broadband Deployment Council, said broadband service is now available to about 85 percent of West Virginia households -- up from 44 percent in 2008.

At the same time, more and more West Virginians are signing up for high-speed Internet service, he said. About 62 percent of households now subscribe to broadband where it's available -- up from 42 percent five years ago.

The Broadband Council recently funded projects that provide wireless Internet to rural communities, O'Hanlon said. The council plans to distribute about $2 million in grants later this year, and hopes to seek additional funding from the state Legislature in 2014.

* Herb Smith, Philippi's broadband director, spoke about the struggles of operating a city-owned broadband network. Smith's department has only two employees. The workers sometimes get assigned to other city jobs, such as picking up trash.

The city's broadband system makes enough money to cover its costs, and "that's about it," Smith said.

About 50 percent of residents signed up for broadband service, he said.

"It's a city service, just like sewer, water, garbage and electricity," Smith said.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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