Internet Access a Priority Now More Than Ever
By ROBERT A.
ST. CLAIRSVILLE — The need for internet access has become all the more evident during the COVID-19 pandemic that has forced more people to work and learn from home.
State lawmakers such as Ohio Sen. Frank Hoagland, R-Mingo Junction, have been focusing on the broadband question and consulting with the Federal Communications Commission. However, initiatives to expand and improve access remain in planning stages.
Hoagland said he continues to look at factors such as how to allocate funding for a project that best suits the local area’s needs.
“We’ve learned quite a bit since we’ve had the shutdowns and the modifications of our daily routines,” he said. “We’ve now become much more reliant on our main form of communication, either cellular or through some form of a broadband connectivity, and this has impacted our school systems and our telehealth programs.”
A chief consideration is the minimum speed necessary to support video telemedicine, since those speeds would also support functions such as homeschooling and other options.
“A lot of parents, especially in our district, they don’t really have the capacity of connecting with the internet unless they use satellite. The FCC is 10 (megabits) down and 3 up, and that’s not going to support Google School. It’s not going to support video telemedicine.”
Hoagland said the demand is now much higher, particularly for video services. And while improving underserved areas is a matter of improving existing infrastructure, many sections of his district have no infrastructure.
“We’ve got to focus on unserved areas,” Hoagland said. “There’s a huge difference between underserved and unserved areas.”
Many are left to employ methods such as directing a microwave antennae to a cellular phone tower or other service provider.
“That’s the only way as of right now I can see that we could actually support it,” he said. “We’ve not increased our speeds in 30 years in this area.”
The question of infrastructure means the state must find service providers who will commit to obtaining the speed to support the communities’ needs. While Hoagland has spoken with several service providers, none so far has committed to that level of speed.
“I want to see that increase until we actually have a functional internet,” he said.
One possible option is “dark fiber,” a pre-existing underground infrastructure that does not yet have the hardware or software that enable it to run services. Hoagland said years ago, when the government was running fiber optics to libraries, schools and municipal buildings, installers bypassed many small towns.
“We can pull off of that dark wire, and we build the infrastructure to support some of these very rural areas,” he said. “We’ve got to figure out how to tap into that dark wire.”
“First off is finding a service provider that’s going to give it the speeds, then get the funding, get everybody involved, and make it happen,” he said.
“First of all, you’ve got to develop and locate where the dark wire is, where we can tap into it. Then the engineers are going to have to get involved to figure out what kind of hardware they’re going to install to support the distribution of broadband internet,” he said.
It may not be possible to run fiber directly to a house, but rather to use antennae at the closest point. Others who live closer-by might be able to tap into the infrastructure directly.
“Every area is going to be a tad bit different,” he said. “(Dark fiber) is not all over the place. There’s certain thoroughways the engineers put it when they were running it from Point A to Point B.”
Other possibilities include running coax cable directly to houses.
Meanwhile, across the Ohio River in West Virginia, state Senate Majority Leader Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, said Senate President Craig Blair has made it known one of his top priorities is the expansion of broadband in the Mountain State.
While Weld represents a largely urban district, he is attentive to the issues of those without internet service.
“There are a lot of parts of the state that are very rural and have no access whatsoever to any providers that can give them high-speed internet, and so the federal government (FCC) this year is undertaking a massive action to expand broadband and to facilitate expansion of the market, and so we’re going to do things on the state’s side to compliment that action, doing what we can to lessen restrictions on things like pole attachments and ensuring that providers can place fiber optic cables on telephone poles, but also even things like right-of-way access over publicly held property. Many utilities — water, telephone, electric — have right-of-ways next to public roads, so ensuring access to the right-of-ways and easements that other utilities have for broadband.”
He also said the COVID-19 pandemic has hurt many students’ ability to participate in learning online, downloading or uploading materials.
“That made us even more aware of the challenges that many people who live in a rural area face,” he said. “This is just as important as having electricity if you’re a business.”
He also said lawmakers intend to enact legislation so that providers in West Virginia such as Frontier and Comcast will be expected to launch an expansion program. He expects work on the multi-year program to begin this year.
“It can’t be solved in a week or a month or one single year,” he said, adding it is an immediate need and one of West Virginia’s most pressing issues.