West Virginia mulls mother of all muni networks – effectively a state-wide, state-run ISP

Cable companies react exactly how you'd expect, too

The US state of West Virginia is debating whether it should get into the ISP business, thanks to a new bill calling for a state-run fiber broadband network.

SB 315 calls for the state to lay down its own internet backbone and provide service throughout the state for all residents.

The bill would have the state pay for the laying of more than 2,000 miles of fiber cables and would charge the West Virginia Water Development Authority with overseeing service, including free internet and phone service for universities and government buildings. Homes and businesses who use the backbone would pay charges to cover the cost of maintaining and operating the network.

The aim of the bill would be to improve broadband availability in the rural mountain regions that cover most of West Virginia. According to advocacy site Broadband Now, West Virginia ranks 45 out of 50 US states with just 57 per cent of the population having access to 25Mbps or better service and just 25 per cent having a choice of more than two providers.

Proponents of the bill, including the editorial board of the Charleston Gazette-Mail, argue that the network would help those badly underserved areas by laying fiber in places where private carriers are unwilling to invest.

"Reliable, high-speed Internet connection is just as important to some businesses as running water, electricity or well-maintained highway and rail systems," the editorial reads.

"This plan may not be perfect, and certainly has its opponents, but the legislative process will take care of finding ways to improve the proposal."

Existing broadband providers in West Virginia, unsurprisingly, are arguing that the bill would be an unwelcome government incursion on private businesses who themselves are working to lay broadband cable in rural areas and offer their own services.

"This bill would obligate the state to borrow between $75 million and $100 million, and it wouldn’t guarantee that a single rural customer who doesn’t have broadband service would get it," said Mark Polen, executive director of the West Virginia Cable Television Association.

"The state-financed, state-owned and state-operated fiber network will be in direct competition with the private investments our members have made in West Virginia."

The debate in West Virginia is virtually identical to those being waged in many other parts of the US, where local governments are lobbying to build their own broadband networks, opposed by cable companies and groups who argue that governments have neither the right nor the need to get into the ISP business and compete against private companies. ®

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