Broadband growth gets support from state government: High-speed Internet means more than just surfing Web [The Dominion Post, Morgantown, W.Va.]
(Dominion Post (Morgantown, WV) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Jun. 1--Gabrielle Ramirez, of Lewisburg, had foot and hand tremors from her earliest days of infancy.
Despite local doctors' assurances, said her mom, Sherri Ramirez, the problem didn't go away.
" 'It's nothing,' they would say. We kept on and kept on," she said.
When Gabrielle was 15 going on 16, she told her mom, "I can't take this anymore," Sherri said.
There were muscle spasms. It was affecting her eating, her drinking, her handwriting. She would fall frequently. "We call her 'Not So Miss Graceful.'" The positive attitude didn't diminish the growing frustration.
Then, a doctor in Lewisburg mentioned WVU's Mountaineer Doctor Television -- MDTV.
"We had never heard of it," Ramirez said. But they tried it.
Gabrielle, now 16, sat in a WVU studio in Lewisburg, with a computer and camera connected via Internet to a studio at WVU's Health Sciences Center in Morgantown. Dr. Margaret Janes, a pediatric neurologist, examined Gabrielle via the Internet connection. She had Gabrielle show her her foot.
And Janes had the answer -- a neurological disorder called Charcot-Marie-Tooth, or CMT.
"Finally, a diagnosis after 16 years," Sherri Ramirez said. "If it hadn't been for this neurologist taking a look at her foot, we'd have never known."
Their story, and what programs like MDTV can offer, are examples of the power of broadband Internet connection to change the face of America, said Larry Irving, a former U.S. assistant secretary of commerce and co-chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA).
And it explains why West Virginia has created a Broadband Deployment Council, to bring broadband to the 17 percent of its population who lack it and most critically need it, said Brian Mefford, CEO of Connected Nation, which serves the state through its subsidiary Connect West Virginia.
It's prohibitively expensive for broadband providers to bring service to mountainous rural areas, he said. A Connect West Virginia map shows scattered red dots of broadband service around cities and municipalities, with broad swaths of green where rural folks can't hook up.
But West Virginia is one of the first states to enact broadband policy, he said, to seek some hard numbers on the need and develop means and incentives to get those folks hooked up.
Broadband -- high-speed Internet connection, not dial-up -- means streaming TV and movies, and online gaming for many. Maybe a handy way to order pizza.
But it also means access to medical services and education and economic opportunities.
"In rural areas like Preston County, broadband can give people the ability to run a business," said County Commission President Craig Jennings.
"They're connected to [the] entire world," he said. They can leave the big city and live a rural lifestyle, but still do day-to-day work.
"It's where I see future growth in business, and not just in Preston County."
But many Preston residents don't have broadband access, he said, and a look at Connect West Virginia's Preston map confirms that.
There are red circles around the towns -- covering less than half of Preston's area -- but the rest is green. Monongalia County's map is much different -- a small fringe of green around borders, with most of the rest red.
"We may have much of Preston's land mass covered," Jennings said, "but not as much of the population."
People may have some form of Internet access, he said, but it can be costly and slow, and unable to handle the massive amount of data a business or a doctor needs to transfer.
"The commission is working with all [state and federal] officials to develop connectivity," he said.
With broadband, Irving said, rural residents can take college courses online -- for example, through WVU's eCampus -- to change jobs or advance their careers.
They can have face-to-face video conferences with doctors; download their blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar tests; and post MRIs and CT scans on the Net for remote diagnosis.
The IIA is a "coalition of business and nonprofit organizations that aims to ensure that every American has access to broadband Internet."
Echoing Jennings, the IIA and government officials across the nation tout broadband's economic impact.
"In the same way that roads, trains and ports once spurred job creation, [broadband] is critical to modern businesses to locate in and stay in communities," said Irving, who was a principal adviser to the president, vice president and secretary of commerce on telecommunications and information technology issues, according to his biography with the IIA.
If West Virginia broadband access grew by just 7 percent, the state could see an annual economic boost of more than $616 million, according to a Connected Nation study based on the results of expanded broadband service in Kentucky.
The impact would create 12,690 new jobs in the state, and about $399 million in new income.
Increased broadband access to heath care and health information would save state residents more than $4 million.
And whether people are working from home or seeing their doctors remotely via broadband, the study estimates West Virginians would save more than $40 million in mileage costs.
Spreading the word
To promote national broadband connectivity, President Obama set aside $7.2 billion in the federal stimulus package.
An IIA chart shows the $2.5 billion is for grants and loans through the USDA's Rural Utility Service to build broadband networks, with priority to rural development and serving the unserved -- those who have no access.
The remaining $4.7 billion is for grants to programs to encourage adoption of broadband service. From this portion, $350 million is for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) -- Irving is a former NTIA administrator -- for a national broadband inventory map to see who has service and who doesn't.
"I don't know that we have the kind of hard data that we need" yet, Irving said. They hope to have a national map in one to two years.
"Historically, West Virginia has lagged behind the nation in access," Irving said.
But West Virginia is now on the cutting edge, said Connected Nation's Mefford, with its Broadband Council, and the mapping is already under way by Connect West Virginia. It's one of only about a dozen states with a mapping project.
He estimates that about 19 percent of West Virginia's residents are unserved by broadband.
One of the obstacles to getting those unserved people served, Mefford and Irving agree, is West Virginia's terrain. It's not cost effective for for-profit broadband providers to run service lines to hilly, remote, sparsely populated areas.
So the grants offered through the stimulus funds can give providers incentives to run their lines.
Two West Virginia lawmakers, Irving said, have been key in obtaining federal funding for broadband access: Rep. Alan Mollohan and Sen. Jay Rockefeller.
Mollohan did not respond to requests for comment for this report, but Rockefeller's Press Secretary, Rebecca Gale, answered some questions via e-mail.
"Sen. Rockefeller believes that expanding broadband is vitally important, and has been pushing for the better part of two decades to expand access to broadband, especially in rural and small communities." she said. "It means more opportunities for jobs through telecommuting and online businesses, more opportunities for education through online learning, and more opportunities to improve rural health care through telemedicine."
Gale noted that in January, Rockefeller became chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. He was one of the principal authors of the $7.2 billion allocation toward broadband improvement, and since 2000, has been pushing for tax incentives to deploy broadband in rural areas.
One element of the Rural Utility Service grants is encouraging multiple providers in service areas.
"The more competitive we can make our broadband market," Gale said, "the more likely that the price will come down for our families who rely on it."
Comcast and Verizon
Two high-speed Internet competitors in north-central West Virginia are Comcast and Verizon.
Neither company was able to provide local figures on broadband usage.
Comcast has about 14.9 million broadband users in the 39 states it serves, according to company literature. That's about 30 percent of the homes it serves.
About 273,000 homes in Comcast's West Virginia service area have broadband access, said Sena Fitzmaurice, executive director of Corporate Communications and Government Affairs.
Verizon has about 8.9 million broadband customers nationally -- 6.1 million high speed Internet customers and nearly 2.8 million FiOS (fiber optic) customers, said Sandy Arnette of Verizon Media Relations.
Fitzmaurice acknowledged what officials have said. "For many areas of West Virginia, it's difficult to deliver broadband economically."
She said government incentives, such as tax breaks, would be important to extend service to the unserved.
One useful tool, she said, would be devoting some of the universal service fee -- a tax included in your cable bill that provides funds for school and library Internet access -- to broadband expansion.
"It may not be feasible without the incentives," she said.
Apart from that, "we've advocated that the broadband stimulus funds should go to ... educate consumers on [broadband's] benefits, to try to get more people to adopt broadband."
For Verizon, Arnette said, "population density severely impacts our ability to spread the fixed costs of providing broadband over the customers in a community."
One answer: "We look to provide additional broadband service in conjunction with service improvements or other capital intensive jobs, thus making it financially viable. Without spreading the cost among many types of capital intensive jobs, we would not be able to justify the broadband expenditures.
"We also look to work with community leaders and citizens," she said, "to increase demand and educate people about broadband service in their particular area. If demand is stronger than our usual business case, this allows us to spread the fixed costs over more customers who actually will buy broadband."
Lack of demand is another issue for broadband expansion, officials said. A federal white paper cited by the IIA notes that nationally, 35 million households have access to broadband, but don't use the service.
A Connected Nation survey revealed the people cite five reasons for not hooking up to broadband: don't need it, 44 percent; don't have a computer, 32 percent; it's too expensive, 23 percent; it's not available (unserved), 14 percent; they get it somewhere else (a school or library), 8 percent.
Fitzmaurice and Arnette noted that about 30 percent of homes nationally, and 40 percent in West Virginia, lack computers.
"This precludes 40 percent of West Virginia households from obtaining broadband," Arnette said.
The Connected Nation survey reported three primary reasons for not owning computers: 61 percent said they don't need or don't know if they need one; 28 percent said computers are too expensive; 10 percent said they can use one somewhere else; another 10 percent gave other reasons. (some people listed more than one reason.)
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