As in the rest of the country, broadband is now a necessity for rural economic development in West Virginia. Taking on the challenge, Spruce Knob Seneca Rocks Telephone (SKSRT) cooperative overcame impressive obstacles to build a state-of-the-art fiber optic network.
The cooperative operates in some of the most serene landscape in the United States and some of the most difficult terrain for fiber deployments. The region’s economy primarily relies on ski resorts and tourism from its namesake, Spruce Knob, the highest peak in the Allegheny Mountains.
SKSRT’s service area also includes the National Radio Quiet Zone, which creates unique challenges for the cooperative. Established in 1958 by the FCC, the National Radio Quiet Zone protects the radio telescopes at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory from interference. Because these telescopes are incredibly sensitive, the region is greatly restricted in deploying different types of telecommunication technologies. In certain areas of the quiet zone, closest to the observatory, wireless routers and two-way radios are prohibited.
Because of the mountainous terrain and the technology restrictions, large telecoms had completely bypassed the sparsely populated communities, leaving them with few options for any sort of connectivity. Much of the isolated region still used the old ringdown operator-telephone system until 1972 when the community created SKSRT as a non-profit cooperative. SKSRT installed the latest in telephone infrastructure at the time and committed to encouraging economic development in the region.
Thirty years later, in 2008, the copper infrastructure that SKSRT had originally installed was in bad shape. The coop went to the Rural Utility Service to fund the needed copper improvements. RUS instead encouraged future-proof fiber. While other telecoms have integrated fiber slowly, General Manager Vickie Colaw explained in an interview with us that SKSRT took a different approach:
“It was evolving to a fiber world. That was when we decided to be total fiber-to-the-home.”
The coop obtained a $7.7 million loan from the USDA and added 57 subscribers to their system, upgraded all of their equipment, and began providing fiber-to-the-home. The presentation of the loan was a celebrated, public event with federal and state officials, local business leaders, and community stakeholders. At that time, then U.S. Rep (now U.S. Sen.) Shelley Moore Capito described the importance of the loan for Pendleton County:
“It’s time for you to be a part of cutting edge technology that exists in the country. It opens up a world of opportunity, a world of learning and a world of the future for Pendleton County."
When the network was completed in 2012, SKSRT became one of the first coops in the country to offer FTTH to everyone in its service area. The small coop then expanded after receiving another $8.5 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds to provide broadband service throughout Pendleton County and northern Pocahontas County, a region at the very heart of the National Radio Quiet Zone. The added restrictions from deploying so close to the observatory proved challenging, but the project made fiber available to an additional 762 full-time households and 560 seasonal houses. With construction of the network mostly finished in these areas, homes have been utilizing the fiber network since late 2014.
Because fiber offers so many more possibilities than copper, SKSRT can offer triple-play service, including IPTV, telephone, and Internet access. For Internet access, most residential users choose a low-tier of 3 Mbps / 1 Mbps or 6 Mbps / 1 Mbps, while businesses prefer to have 15 Mbps down. Business customers can negotiate higher speeds when standard offerings are not sufficient; SKSRT provides 50 Mbps download speeds to a few local businesses. The coop is currently in the process of upgrading the speeds they offer.
Thanks to their local coop, these rural communities in the Alleghenies are connecting to the rest of the world through the latest technology, just as they did 40 years ago.