Panel looks at broadband services [The Register-Herald, Beckley, W.Va.]By Tina Alvey, The Register-Herald, Beckley, W.Va.McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
Sept. 01--WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS -- Any discussion of the challenges posed to West Virginia by the growth of technology must begin with the acknowledgment that a significant portion of the state's rural households do not have access to broadband.
A panel of communications industry executives assembled Friday at The Greenbrier all agreed this lack of "connectivity" must be addressed -- whether by their own industry or the government or, more likely, a joint effort from both the public and private sectors.
"We need to really take a look at where we are today and where we want to go," said CityNet CEO Jim Martin, one of the panelists.
Noting that at least one study ranks West Virginia's broadband penetration 52nd among the nation's states and territories -- just above Guam -- Martin said the state's leaders have to aim higher.
"We're shooting for the floor, and that's not going to get us anywhere," he said.
Martin said access to rural markets requires infrastructure, whether in the form of fiber optic lines or wireless innovations.
That need for "robust infrastructure" is one of "four pillars for a successful technology ecosystem" espoused by panelist Timothy Biltz, CEO of Lumos Networks, the sponsor of Friday's forum at the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce's Business Summit.
The other three "pillars" call for businesses to embrace competition, encourage innovation and develop their human capital -- the skills and talents of executives and employees alike.
"There are tremendous growth opportunities (in technology), and there's no reason the next Facebook can't happen here in West Virginia," Biltz said.
Verizon President John Ruddick rounded out the three-man panel, and he spoke about the importance of education as technology expands in the workplace.
"Without a well-educated workforce, it is difficult to attract industries that offer well-paying jobs," Ruddick said.
He said it is not enough for the state to simply provide the latest in technology to schools. There must also be qualified teachers to utilize the technology and teach its use to students, Ruddick said. In addition, sufficient numbers of technologists must be employed in the school system to repair the equipment after it is installed.
The forum's moderator, Dr. Jose Sartarelli, Milan Puskar dean of the WVU College of Business and Economics, noted that while the FCC claims only 845,000 out of West Virginia's 1.8 million people are connected to broadband Internet service, virtually all of Singapore's population of 5 million are connected. South Korea's 49 million people are almost fully connected as well.
Sartarelli asked the panelists what they think it will take to bring West Virginia up to the 100 percent mark.
Biltz predicted it would take "multiple billions of dollars" to accomplish the task, using as his template the actual expenses his company has encountered in extending service to some sites in the Covington, Va., area. He said it is costing Lumos more than $5,000 per home to provide broadband connectivity in that area.
He said a state and federal investment in infrastructure is essential if West Virginia is to be fully connected.
Martin concurred, noting his own father, living just outside the small Randolph County town of Beverly, still has no broadband service. He said the need for a fiber network in the vicinity of Beverly is the same as in the rest of the state's rural areas.
Martin said the state must explore funding sources for that essential infrastructure, terming broadband access an economic development issue.
Today, he said, West Virginia is at a competitive disadvantage when trying to attract industrial investments because the bandwidth needed by those businesses is available only in the state's few major population hubs. By contrast, other states have more sites to offer, thanks to superior infrastructure.
Ruddick suggested the public needs to be educated on the uses of the Internet, operating on the principle that if people realize what they are missing out on, they will demand that access to the service be provided.
Santarelli concluded the discussion with the remark "We must create a 'highway to the future.'"
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