County takes two-pronged approach to expand broadband internet access

by Kate Shunney

Morgan County officials have heard plenty about the need for reliable and widespread broadband internet service to all residents over the years.

As new streams of money have opened up at the state level to achieve complete broadband coverage across West Virginia, commissioners are casting their nets for some of those funds.

At a meeting earlier this month, commissioners voted 2-0 to advertise their request for proposal (RFP) from partners who could expand fiber broadband to Morgan County households that don’t have it.

Commission President Sean Forney said the RFP process is part of the Gig-Ready Broadband Implementation program.

“There’s a large pot of money the state set aside for fiber broadband,” Forney said.

Morgan County enrolled in the state’s Technical Assistance program to refine what officials are asking for – service providers who want to partner with the county to implement full-coverage broadband.

Commissioners have already earmarked $500,000 as the county’s match in the broadband expansion effort.

Areas of the county that were part of the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction process are excluded from the RFP, said Forney.

Frontier Communications was awarded federal funds from the FCC to extend broadband to 24 locations around the Berkeley Springs area.

Forney said it will be up to the winning bidder on the RFP to “build out” internet service in specific areas of Morgan County that do not have broadband service.

The FCC sets the standard for broadband service as minimum speeds of 25 megabits per second downstream and 3 megabits per second upstream.

According to Forney, the partner in broadband service could be a contractor who works with multiple internet service providers to get broadband to households.

The RFP will run in the newspaper and be posted on the county’s website. Bids from service providers are due November 28 and the bids will be opened December 7.

At the same meeting, commissioners agreed to put $130,000 in an Economic Development Authority revolving loan fund for Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs) who want to add towers in the county.

Commissioner Bill Clark has promoted the idea, saying WISPs can expand wireless internet to local customers, but their speeds sometimes don’t meet the federal definition of “broadband internet,” so they miss out on grant funding and government expansion contracts.

“The only kind of companies that are expanding internet and our WISPs, is only Morgan Wireless,” said Clark.

He said the EDA would manage the revolving loan fund, which could issue 10 loans of $13,000 each. Those loans would go to wireless internet providers to set up community towers that can broadcast wireless internet signals into populated pockets, like remote subdivisions.

Morgan Wireless representative Ron Martin told commissioners it costs his company $8,000-15,000 to install a tower that can reach maybe 20-30 households.

“Your fiber providers are not going to go to a subdivision with 20 homes,” said Martin.

Clark said as these loans are paid back, more loans can be made. The result will be a steady addition of wireless internet service to pockets of the county.

“This will actually get us there while we watch all this other federal money get spent,” said Clark.