BUCKHANNON — Low-cost broadband wireless internet access may be a coming to a rural location near you, thanks to a federal grant announced Wednesday by the Upshur County Development Authority.
In what he described Thursday as “just a great, great win for our region,” UCDA executive director Rob Hinton said a $3 million federal grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utility Service’s Community Connect grant program has been awarded to the Central West Virginia Development Association. The joint entity is a collaboration between development authorities in three counties — Upshur, Barbour and Randolph, which Hinton worked to form in 2015.
According a map provided to The Record Delta by the UCDA, the fixed wireless broadband network will extend through most areas of Upshur County, with the exception of the northwest corner and some of the southern boundary of the county.
Thanks to the grant, the broadband network will also extend into the southwest section of Barbour County, in addition to parts of central Randolph County. By the time the project is completed — which is expected to take place over the next two years — the coverage area will encompass 950 square miles, providing affordable broadband internet access to almost 9,200 residents and more than 920 businesses in the area through the construction of 26 new towers, according to Hinton.
Because of the grant award, which will be matched with $450,000 in local funds, individuals living in rural areas who currently have access to less than 4 megabits per second download speeds — many of whom only can only use dial-up or satellite internet currently — will eventually be able to purchase packages of 10 megabits download speed and 1 megabit upload speed starting at $25 per month through the service’s provider, Micrologic.
“When we were applying for the grant, we thought, ‘If we’re going to bring broadband to underserved areas, it’s got to be affordable, and $25 a month is about as affordable as I think we can get,’” Hinton said.
In addition, Micrologic’s standard package will offer a 25 megabits per second download speed with a 4 megabits per second upload speed at a rate of $36.95, Emiel Butcher, owner of Micrologic, said Thursday. That meets the Federal Communications Commission’s definition of broadband, which they set in 2015 as a minimum of 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload.
Hinton says the grant finally interrupts a dry spell in West Virginia being awarded money to fund broadband wireless internet.
“Well over 9,000 people are estimated to be served, and this is nine or 10 years since West Virginia has been a recipient of a Community Connect grant, so we broke the drought and hopefully West Virginia can follow this model and continue to get more funding for broadband wireless internet,” Hinton said. “This is the largest Community Connect project by number of residents served and area of coverage, and the application, which was 800 pages, took the Community Connect program more than a year to process.”
In addition to individuals, schools, libraries, fire departments and other public entities will benefit from increased broadband access. The addition of the network will also be a boon to the economy in both the short term and long term, Hinton said.
“Construction of all towers with federal money will create jobs, because we will be building 26 new towers, and there will be a chance for construction companies to bid on tower building,” Hinton said.
As far as long-term jobs go, Butcher said he expects the program will enable him to hire up to six new full-time employees at Micrologic. But the fact that the new low-cost broadband internet will enable people to work from home will also spur the creation of more tech jobs in the long-term without new companies necessarily having to relocate to Upshur County, Hinton said.
“This dovetails very well with programs that will be coming out of the new innovation center (Upshur County Business and Innovation Center),” Hinton said. “We will be offering coding classes, bringing in organizations for telework types of jobs and will also be expanding workforce training with data analytics and data processing, so with the increased broadband access, people will be able to do that type of work remotely from home.
“If they have access to training (through the innovation center) and access to broadband through this grant, we can start to develop more jobs in our area without bringing in company footprints,” Hinton added. “There’s an education component to this, too. In Upshur County Schools, if more students have the ability to access broadband while at home, the school system can offer more web-based programs.”
So, how long before people in underserved areas will be able to log on?
Hinton says that although the entire project is expected to take two years to complete, residents across the region will gain access to the network incrementally.
“The entire new network area will hopefully be constructed and completed in two years, but as we start to build towers, we’ll get electronic equipment on the towers and get the towers turned on,” he said. “You won’t have to wait two years — incrementally, people will be able to get it, depending on where they are.”
Hinton said he wanted to thank several local partners throughout the region, as well as Sen. Shelley Moore Capito.
“Sen. Capito has been a partner along the way as far as bringing awareness to the Community Connect program and acting as a resource,” he said. “She’s been very supportive at the federal level, getting support for our project and our state. She’s been a champion along the way during the whole process.”
“We also really couldn’t have done this without the Region VII Planning and Development Council and community members as well, who have helped in locating places for towers and working with landowners,” Hinton added. “This has truly been a community effort. This program proves that a community can come together to create a solution and have a funding mechanism to make that solution happen, and we can recruit those resources. This project is about proving that we can get funding for broadband outside of the FCC money.”
For a map of the coverage area, check out The Record Delta’s Facebook page.