by Kate Shunney
Results of a survey about local broadband internet service were presented to the Morgan County Commission by a technology network consultant late last week.
The message was pretty clear, said Andrew Cohill, President of Design Nine of Blacksburg, Va. — county residents think their internet service stinks.
Cohill said the response to the online and paper survey was “astounding.”
He told commissioners that 814 people responded to the survey – accounting for 15 percent of county households. Usually, his firm sees a response rate of 2 to 3 percent. Another 43 responses came from county businesses.
Of all those who took the survey, 94 percent said they wanted better internet, said Cohill. And 84 percent said they are “not satisfied” with the internet service they have.
“People are very frustrated about their service,” Cohill told officials.
Of survey respondents, 563 (77 percent) get their internet from Frontier Communications. Twelve percent (87 households) have internet through Comcast. The remaining 11 percent of those surveyed get service from AT&T/DirecTV, Verizon, Hughes/Dish/Viazet/Excede, Cricket, Hughes Net, Morgan Wireless, U.S. Cellular and SkyWeb.
Cohill walked county officials through his firm’s tabulation of the survey responses during a special meeting on Thursday, December 13.
Not only were respondents unhappy with their current internet service or provider, 48 percent said the quality of their broadband service would be a deciding factor in whether they continue to live here.
In 20 pages of individual comments taken as part of the survey, several individuals told surveyors that they are seriously considering moving their household or business because they can’t get reliable, high-speed broadband where they currently live in Morgan County.
Others said they can’t use Smart TV or streaming television or video features of their home electronics because service is too spotty or doesn’t have enough bandwidth.
Many respondents said they rely on a broadband internet connection to work from home, and frequent service outages and delays in repairing internet service causes a major hardship for them.
Of the businesses that responded to the survey, Cohill said 86 percent want better internet service and 100 percent of them say having internet service is “vital” to their success as a business over the next five years.
Only 4 percent of businesses said they were “very satisfied” with their current internet service.
Even businesses with a regular location want employees to be able to work from home, Cohill said, “no matter where they choose to live.”
Cohill’s firm was hired this summer to conduct the survey and take a comprehensive look at the broadband situation in Morgan County.
Design Nine will take responses, technical data and an inventory of the county’s telecommunications towers and use those to create a plan to achieve countywide broadband service coverage.
Morgan County is paying for the study through a $75,000 federal grant for broadband planning. The contract with Design Nine will cost the county roughly $25,000.
Cohill said his firm has been clear about the goal of the effort, under the direction of county officials.
“The goal here is not to compete with the private sector,” he said. Morgan County government doesn’t want to be the direct provider of internet service to residents, but can help private companies who want to offer the service to residents, said Cohill.
He said the top ways to attract more wireless internet service providers to Morgan County is to make improvements to the county’s existing towers.
Morgan County owns and maintains six telecommunications towers. Those are the backbone of a countywide wireless broadband network.
Cohill said “coverage is pretty good” with those six towers in place. Because of the topography of the ridges and valleys in the county, ridge-top towers can reach homes on both sides.
“Terrain here is actually quite favorable compared to other parts of West Virginia,” he said.
A potential design for wider broadband service would rely on “community poles” that would deliver wireless broadband to clusters of homes throughout the county.
“Line of sight is going to continue to be very important,” said Cohill.
“The good news is tower improvements can be done in months, not years, once funding is identified,” Cohill said.
He urged county officials to take steps now with the funding they have. A track record of action will make it easier to attract more grant funding, he said.
Cohill recommended that county officials work with internet service providers to find out what they need, and how they can improve service to residents.
Commissioner Bob Ford said his goal is to make county towers more attractive to providers, both through tower upgrades and changing the terms of tower location contracts.
“My goal is to provide the service to the public. It has to be affordable,” said Ford.
He said the county can negotiate how much they charge service providers to put equipment on county towers, as a way to get more companies to deliver the service to residents.
“The county has to receive something to keep it going right, but we’re not in the business of making money,” said Ford.
Cohill’s firm will be talking to the county’s main internet service providers in the coming weeks, he said.
Design Nine will recommend what the county could charge providers to put broadband equipment on their towers.
Ron Martin, of Morgan Wireless, questioned how small internet providers could afford to put their equipment on county towers and compete with larger companies, or companies that were allowed to put equipment on public towers for free.
Cohill said his firm would advise the county on how to adjust their tower location fees.
Bill Carey of Berkeley Springs asked if more than one company could use a tower. Cohill said they could, but it’s unlikely more than two providers would locate on a tower, given the local population density.
Kris Domich of Berkeley Springs asked if Design Nine had created specifications about what assets the towers have and need. Cohill said his company is putting that together.
Martin asked if the expansion of 5G service would affect tower improvements.
“We don’t see 5G as a solution to rural areas,” said Cohill.
Commission President Joel Tuttle said recommendations from Design Nine would help the county “make a fair playing field” for internet providers to do business in Morgan County. He said he “doesn’t really care who they are” as long as companies bring reliable broadband internet to residents.
Jim Hoyt of Great Cacapon asked if the county would consider charging providers a percentage per customer rather than a flat fee as small companies grow their customer base.
“I think the county is going to be able to accomplish this. The stars are lined up to get this done,” said Commissioner Ford.
Cohill said his firm should have a broadband network plan in place by the end of January for county officials to review.
A full report of broadband survey results is posted on the county government website at morgancountywv.gov.