BUCKHANNON — Sen. Shelley Moore Capito delivered on her pledge to connect central West Virginians to the information superhighway by connecting a local development group to $3 million in funding.
Capito and Anne Hazlett, assistant to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, stopped at Buckhannon-Upshur High School Monday morning to discuss a major investment in broadband that will give 3,600 households, businesses and organizations in Upshur, Randolph and Barbour counties access to high-speed internet. Hazlett presented the $3 million check to the Central West Virginia Development Association — a coalition comprised of the Upshur County Economic Development Authority, the Randolph County Development Authority and the Randolph County Development Authority.
News of the grant award was first reported this summer.
According to UCDA executive director Rob Hinton, construction of 26 new broadband towers and improvements to nine existing towers will begin in May or June of 2018 and are expected to continue throughout the summer.
“This is a really exciting day,” Hinton told the group of local government officials, educators and high school students gathered in B-UHS’s auditorium during the check presentation ceremony. “I can’t tell you how important Senator Capito has been in various initiatives, and today, we’re focused on broadband. And 2 ½ years ago, she launched what’s called Capito Connect, and it was a program that establishes awareness of the need for broadband expansion and broadband infrastructure in the state of West Virginia and what the expansion of broadband infrastructure will mean for the state of West Virginia.”
Hinton and the Central W.Va. Development Association were notified that they’d won the grant in late June 2017.
Obtained through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utility Service’s Community Connect grant program, the grant will bring broadband wireless internet to most of Upshur County, except for the northwest section and some of the southern boundary, according to previous Record Delta reports. Individuals living in rural areas with less than 4 megabits per second — many of whom can only access dial-up or satellite internet currently — will eventually be able to purchase internet packages of 10 megabits download speed and 1 megabit upload speed starting at $25 per month through the provider, Micrologic.
Faster speeds will also be available. The FCC currently defines broadband as minimum speeds of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload.
Hinton introduced Capito, who said access to high-speed internet is crucial to the Mountain State’s economic and educational future.
“In this day and age with so much commerce and education and health care and information and news and even emergency notifications are really passed through the internet or social media, nobody should be left behind — not for economic reasons, not for educational reasons, but for your pure own personal safety,” Capito said. “This is acknowledging that the world is changing, and breakthroughs in technology are occurring every day that will transform how we do business.”
Capito said she’s been concerned about the “digital divide” between rural and urban areas since she was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 2014.
“We created Capito Connect because we realized at the time that, 56 percent of our state did not have high-speed internet — high enough speeds to conduct business and be able to take your homework home and do it right and do it well, so that’s what Capito Connect is about,” the senator said. “So this
$3 million investment by the USDA toward 3,600 households that are unserved and undeserved in three counties, Barbour, Upshur and Randolph, this is what this is about, and these are some of the more difficult areas to reach that are going to be reached.”
Capito thanked Hinton, Randolph County Development Authority executive director Robbie Morris and Barbour County Economic Development Authority executive director Cheryl Wolfe for their efforts.
“Our work is not finished,” Capito said. “This is a big hit and a big beginning for Capito Connect and also for the entire state of West Virginia because there are still more areas that are going to lack broadband.”
Hazlett, the assistant to secretary Perdue, said internet connectivity is as much of a necessary utility as electricity today.
“It’s not an amenity,” Hazlett remarked, prior to presenting the check. “It is truly a necessity for counties like Upshur to prosper. Infrastructure is all about connections, whether we’re talking about connecting businesses to customers, connecting a farmer to new markets, connecting rural homes to clean water or connecting students that will walk the halls of this high school and need that knowledge to go with you to prosper in your own careers going forward.”
“To enjoy economic opportunity and quality of life in a modern era rural communities need connection above all,” Hazlett added. “Broadband connectivity is a lifeline; it is the electricity of the modern era and a must-have for competitiveness.”
Hazlett said more work needs to be done, noting 40 percent of rural Americans still don’t have access to “quality, robust” internet service.