West Virginia Awards Community Development Block Grants To Improve Rural Connectivity

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provided Community Development Block Grant funds (CDBG) to West Virginia as in other states. This year, the Community Development Division of the West Virginia Development Office that distributes CDBG funds will provide $1.5 million to local broadband projects that include planning and infrastructure.

Big Demand

Last July, the state’s Development Office announced that it would accept applications for broadband projects. The decision was a departure from past practice of focusing only on water and sewer infrastructure. By the time the application period was closed, 12 potential projects had been submitted for consideration; those projects touch 27 counties and reach about 300,000 premises, many located in the southern part of the state.

All twelve projects will receive some amount of CDBG funding.

One of those applications was from the Region 4 council, in the hopes of obtaining $125,000 for planning to improve connectivity in Webster, Fayette, Greenbrier, Nicholas, and Pocahontas Counties. The state will provide the funding, which will potentially affect future planning for six more counties. Region 4 will collaborate with a similar initiative by Region 1, which will also receive $125,000.

Another multi-organizational application came from Clay County, which plans to work with Calhoun and Roane Counties on a feasibility and business plan on how best to move forward to improve connectivity. Fayette County wants to use its award to map out where best to place fiber for maximum effect and Gilmer County will focus on planning to involve a local industrial park along with exploring other funding strategies.

Other planning projects that will receive CDBG funding include a countywide efforts in Morgan County and a Mingo County initiative to improve Internet access in the town of Gilbert, which local officials consider critical for the local economy. Taylor County will be working with Doddridge, Harrison, Marion, Monogalia, and Preston Counties to update their 2013 Broadband Strategic Plan, which will include a new assessment of where locals lack coverage. Tyler County will use its $30,000 CDBG award for a broadband study.

Not Only Planning

Several communities will receive CDBG funding in order to begin or expand broadband infrastructure projects. Hampshire County deployed a fiber backbone, but they now want to expand to reach other areas of the county; they will receive approximately $403,000. People living in the Hinkle Mountain and Little Laurel areas in Nicholas County will benefit from better broadband and a water extension project. The community will receive CDBG funds for both projects.

logo-CDBG.png Jackson County will also receive funds for broadband infrastructure, in part due to an issue with lack of cell coverage for public safety first resopinders in the Sandyville area.

In a February 1st press release, Governor Jim Justice said, “If West Virginia expects to be competitive with the rest of the world, we must have high speed Internet connectivity, and this is going to help see this through."

This is the first time that West Virginia has dedicated CDBG for boadband projects, but we've also reported on projects in Virginia, where the state provided funding for a Nelson County project and the Eastern Virginia State Broadband Authority (ESVBA) to develop a rural project. Pasadena took advantage of CDBG for some of the advancements of their network.

Local Communities Closer To The Action

Just last week, the Chairman of the state’s Broadband Enhancement Council took issue with the FCC’s 2018 Broadband Deployment Report. The report, based on FCC Form 477 data submitted by Internet Service Providers, states that more than 82 percent of West Virginians have access to fixed Internet access at the speeds the Commission defines as “broadband”— 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload.

“To me, this goes beyond having inaccuracies,” Hinton said. “It’s just disappointing. That’s all it is. At what point next year are they going to say West Virginia has 100 percent coverage?”

Because the FCC relies on census block data to map out what areas of the country have broadband access and rural census blocks are large due to less population density, maps are flawed. Even the FCC in its Broadband Report acknowledges that coverage is likely overstated.

Hinton told the Gazette Mail that the council’s West Virginia Speed Test revealed that approximately half of participants’ results were less than 10 Mbps download. Hinton didn’t mention upload speed test results, but upload is typically a fraction of download from ISPs in rural areas, unless Internet access comes from a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network.

Hinton expressed concern that the FCC’s overstatement of coverage can negatively impact local project chances of obtaining funding. According to the 2018 Broadband Deployment Report, several counties that applied for and received CDBG have 100 percent fixed broadband coverage, but people living in those places dispute that conclusion.

Jeff Campbell, president of the Gilmer County Economic Development Association, said there are “plenty of people” without home broadband access in the county. That’s why his group applied for the grant funding, he said.

“Depending on where you live, you think you would have access to the internet, but you don’t,” he said. “Gilmer County is not unlike many counties in West Virginia, or most of the rural U.S.”