CLARKSBURG, W.Va. – Sens. Joe Manchin, D–W.Va., and Shelley Moore Capito, R–W.Va., were part of an EdTalk panel Tuesday that discussed broadband access in West Virginia.
The discussion also involved Rob Hinton, who is the chair of the WV Broadband Enhancement Council, and State School Superintendent Clayton Burch.
Manchin began the talk by comparing the need for broadband, and a lack of it in many parts of the state, to efforts in the 1930s to electrify rural America.
“If your great-grandparents or grandparents in the 1930s lived in rural West Virginia or rural America, they probably didn’t have electricity,” said Manchin. “Franklin Roosevelt becomes president, and we have the, uh, rural electrification, and they start putting basic electricity into every little nook and cranny and every hollow and road, up every valley, and, and, and everyone became electrified. And, that changed America.
“Well, I’m telling you today, in the 21st century, we still don’t have connectivity throughout every nook and cranny, every hollow, every valley, every river,” Manchin continued. “Every home does not have that connectivity. For us to succeed, it has to be the same undertaking as we did in the 1930s.”
Capito touched on how the state has failed to take advantage of opportunities to make improvements on this front.
“I see where we had some very critical missed opportunities in our state, particularly, uh, in the stimulus package, where we were the state, I think, that received the greatest amount of dollars. And, unfortunately, um, that did not achieve the desired result, which is building a backbone through West Virginia. And, that is a great disappointment to me,” said Capito.
Hinton explained that one of the issues related to broadband access in the state is the fact that, when viewed in terms of a power grid, there is no internet production in West Virginia.
“Internet is not, uh, is not in West Virginia,” said Hinton. “And, I know that may sound like a joke, and there may be some, some laughs out of that because it’s true. We don’t have internet in West Virginia in, in lots of areas.
“Internet, if we look at it as a power system, as a power plant, so electricity, it would be as if West Virginia had had zero power-producing plants, and all of our electricity, we had to, uh, go to, uh, Ashburn, Virginia or Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania or Columbus, Ohio, as examples, and we had to transport our electricity into the state of West Virginia, uh, because we did not produce it here,” Hinton added. “It would be very, very expensive, uh, under that model.
“And, if we look at broadband, if we look at internet, and those areas, Ashburn, Virginia, Columbus, Ohio and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, those, those are internet exchanges. And, that is where we have to, uh, we have to go, we have to send data to those points, one of those points, to access the internet, and to light our fiber or light our airwaves of cellular or fixed wireless. And, so it’s really, really expensive under the current infrastructure that we have,” said Hinton.
Hinton was asked about cell phone coverage in the state, and he explained that the state’s terrain and low population mean it is not worthwhile for companies to invest in the necessary infrastructure to provide better cell service in West Virginia. He said there needs to be more funding available to help mitigate risk for these companies.
Burch offered some insight into real-world experiences of students in West Virginia during the coronavirus pandemic. One of those students has struggled to keep up with his work and has become disengaged.
“Gabriel attends a, a school, um, in a pretty affluent area. Um, access is spotty. Um, he actually found that he was one of the children we heard Sen. Capito and Sen. Manchin, uh, discuss, that um, would have to leave his home if he wanted to connect or do any type of homework,” said Burch. “Did not have a device. Did not have a computer from school. He did have a phone, and he’s done as much as he could on his cell phone, but he had to do it by driving to a local elementary school that they allowed to open up and become a, a hotspot for the community. I will tell you that within the first couple weeks, Gabriel got very, very frustrated, began to pull back from his assignments. It became very cumbersome for the family to continue driving there on a regular basis.”
Another EdTalk is scheduled for next Tuesday. The topic for that talk will be Learning in Crisis: District and School Takeaways.