Lack of Reliable Broadband is More Than Just an Inconvenience for Rural Communities
Every October, Gilbert -- population 475 -- swells with visitors as 5,000 people come for TrailFest, which markets itself as one the premier ATV events on the East Coast. The tourism surrounding the Hatfield-McCoy Trail has helped make the Mingo County town one of the fastest-growing in the area.
Having reliable Internet access here is critical to building the local economy, said Gilbert Mayor Vivian Livingood, who said described the service as "snail-paced."That can make it hard to do business, and she would know. Livingood and her husband own six lodges in the area. Sometimes when guests are paying for a stay, she said, the credit card machine will stop in the middle of a transaction.
"There’s instances where our guests have called us, and say “Your Internet's down, and I had to get this report before I hit the trails. Can you please come over and reset the router or do something?” ... We’re a remote area, we’re fighting for tourism, and we need to offer the best that we can to get them to come back again," she said.
West Virginia’s community development block grant program recently announced more than $1.5 million in projects focused on broadband access. Nine are for studies and three for infrastructure. It marks the first time this grant program is funding such projects. Nicholas and Hampshire counties each got a fifth or more of the grant money and plan to build out connections with it. The Webster and Wyoming County commissions will use their grants on a joint study looking at how to improve access in 11 southern counties.
The grant for Gilbert is $75,000, but starting the plan is a crucial first step, said Leigh Ann Ray, the grant coordinator for the Mingo County Commission.
"Everything, when you go over to that part of the county, it just moves very slow, and you have a lot of outages. There’s no consistency there, and we really need that strong, consistent flow of access in order for our merchants to be able to conduct business," she said.
Nearly 40 percent of rural Americans don’t have broadband access, according to the Federal Communications Commission. The main reason these areas fall behind is partly because it’s a tough sell for companies to invest in sparsely populated areas. Terrain makes building out the needed infrastructure a challenge, too.
"I think to diversify our economy more and to provide more of an incentive for folks to access trail areas and to provide business here, we do need to have that added," said Rob Bobbera, whose son Mitchell makes custom metal artwork at his shop in Gilbert in a space once home to his grandfather’s service station.
His work is impressive: For TrailFest last year he made a perfectly rendered piece of an ATV riding up an outline of the state of West Virginia. He and his dad said their Internet is serviceable, but it’s a lack of cell service that’s the problem.
"So when you have folks that access or website or the social media, and they try to get in touch with us -- if they call, it’s a hit and miss whether they get through," the elder man said.
Better broadband coverage would allow for easier expansion of cell service, according Robert Hinton, chair of the West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council. That group formed in 2016 to oversee broadband plans in the state.
A lack of secure and reliable broadband is a safety issue too, said Cheryl Mitchem, executive director of the Larry Joe Harless Community Center in Gilbert. There, doctors provide primary care five days a week to roughly 30 patients a day on average. The center serves about the same number for its specialty care in neurology and cardiology and other areas. But sometimes, Mitchem said, doctors can’t access complete electronic patient records.
"Often times we go down, and when we go down, they have difficulties," she said. "We need the full history to be able to diagnose and treat.
Paper files aren’t always stored in those specialty clinics, and sometimes doctors have to rely on their memory, she said. The center has explored bringing in programs to help patients manage chronic diseases, she said, but that progress has only advanced so far because of a lack of broadband access.
Mitchem sees the benefit for the local economy, too.
"Without broadband, we have much difficulty in keeping people here. Let’s face it, we are a society that has to have our smartphone with us even when we’re off and away. And if you can’t access your loved ones and your work, you feel lost, even if you do say you’re on a retreat," she said.
The subject of broadband internet access is also in the national eye. President Trump’s recent budget blueprint, for instance, includes $50 billion for "rural infrastructure" though he's letting state and local governments set the direction for that money.