In the House Friday, the House Judiciary Committee took its first look at a bill to expand broadband internet access in the state. The bill’s goal is for all West Virginians to have access by 2020.
According to the Federal Communications Commission, 30 percent of West Virginians do not have access to basic broadband services as defined by federal law. When you look at just the rural parts of the state that percentage increases to 48.
House Bill 3093, which was taken up in the chamber’s Judiciary Committee Friday morning, seeks to expand access to underserved areas in the state.
The bill itself is 33 pages long. It allows communities to form “internet co-opts,” which lead sponsor of the bill Delegate Roger Hanshaw explains are groups of citizens who live in certain geographic areas. The groups can work together to become their own internet service provider.
“If a provider isn’t coming into their area with service that’s of high enough quality to suit their needs," Hanshaw said, "they can get together to work with the provider and become their own provider there in that small community.”
Hanshaw, who is from rural Clay County, says this was one of the biggest barriers he and his colleagues found as they began working on this bill a year ago. He says the bill also addresses some smaller barriers, too, like dealing with micro-trenching, which is the official term for a simple process—the laying of pipes with internet fibers inside them alongside any new highway construction in the state.
Hanshaw says the bill is comprehensive but with a straightforward approach.
“It’s just simply meant to remove barriers to service," he explained, "So our objective in adopting this bill, if we ultimately get it passed both houses is just to remove several barriers all at once to expansion of service, and in doing so, hopefully remove that great big barrier.”
Hanshaw says the bill wouldn’t use any state dollars, and it gives communities the authority to get it started.
“There’s nothing compulsory about this bill," he noted, "This is all a permissive bill; it lets people do things; that’s the objective. So this is a revenue neutral bill. This bill doesn’t require any expenditure of state funds. So how quickly the bill causes service to expand is largely going to be driven by how quickly people want it to happen.”
The bill also creates a Broadband Enhancement Council, which is made up of thirteen voting members including the Secretary of Commerce and the State Superintendent of Schools. The council is housed in the Department of Commerce and is tasked with providing administrative, personnel, and technical support services to the communities that seek broadband expansion on their own.
The bill also establishes a Broadband Enhancement Fund, which will hold any donations or appropriations the Council receives for their projects.
Hanshaw says this bill is an important frontier for West Virginia.
“The interstate highway system, when it was built, after President Eisenhower’s term opened up the country to an entirely new form of commerce. The broadband - access to adequate broadband service, is this generation’s equivalent to the interstate highway system.”
After an hour of questions and discussion in committee, House Judiciary passed House Bill 3093 without debate. It now heads to the full chamber and will likely see a vote next week.