CHARLESTON – Thanks to Congress and President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, federal funding is helping West Virginians gain access to high-speed broadband and computers, with more projects kicking off later this month.
Mitch Carmichael, the secretary of the Department of Economic Development, briefed the joint Committee on Government and Finance on Tuesday morning about the state’s plans for broadband expansion funding through the American Rescue Plan.
“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity really for broadband expansion in West Virginia,” Carmichael said.
West Virginia will receive $138 million for broadband expansion through ARP funding. The state can also use part of the $1.355 billion its receiving through the American Rescue Plan for infrastructure projects, such as broadband expansion. Counties and cities are receiving a combined $679 million through the Biden plan that can also be used for broadband projects. Carmichael said the state plans to use its ARP funds to focus exclusively on getting last-mile broadband service — direct connections to homes — to unserved parts of the state with at least 25 Mbps download speeds and 3 Mbps uploads speeds based on FCC definitions for high-speed broadband. The Office of Broadband wants to focus on parts of the state that are not already funded through federal and state programs.
The state also doesn’t plan to rely exclusively on FCC broadband maps. The current broadband maps used by the FCC are based on reports from internet service providers going off of advertised maximum internet speeds instead of what the reality is. The reports rely on data from U.S. Census blocks and if only one home in a census block has service, the entire census block is considered served.
“We want to use these funds to get to those who do not have service, and we will not rely solely on the inaccurate federal maps, which many of those are inaccurate and out of date,” Carmichael said.
Carmichael said the state’s efforts will focus on looking at existing network line extensions, rapid wireless deployment projects, major broadband infrastructure investments, and a local government/matching broadband funding incentive.
Internet service providers will be able to apply to expand existing fiber and cable networks and the rapid wireless deployment projects later in June. The state is targeting approximately $25 million in total awards for both programs. Companies will be required to match the state funds they’re applying for.
The local government/matching broadband funding incentive will allow the state and local governments to pool their ARP broadband dollars. The program will help with creating designs, cost estimates, analysis, helping broker deals with private partners and vendors, applying for additional federal funding, and seeking matches. The award target is $30 million.
The state is targeting $40 million for the major broadband infrastructure investment program. The funds will go to creating new networks or major expansion of existing networks. Proposals will be selected on a competitive basis. Both the local government/matching broadband funding incentive and the major broadband infrastructure investment program will launch later this month.
There is also funding available for West Virginians who need assistance paying for broadband service or who need a computer or tablet. According to U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., more than 27,000 West Virginians have applied for the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, established by Congress at the end of 2020. The application portal launched three weeks ago.
“Delivering affordable, reliable broadband access to every corner of West Virginia has long been a priority of mine and the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the urgency of closing the digital divide in our state,” Manchin said Tuesday. “I am thrilled more than 27,000 West Virginians have been enrolled in the Emergency Broadband Benefit program so far.”
Eligible West Virginians who apply for the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program can receive as much as $50 per month off their internet bill and $100 towards the purchase of a computer or tablet. Residents can go to getemergencybroadband.org to apply.
“The application is still open, and nearly every West Virginian is eligible for this program to help make broadband more affordable,” Manchin said. “I encourage every eligible West Virginian to apply for the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program and to reach out to my office for any questions about the application process.”
(Adams can be contacted at [email protected])