Broadband access is critical in the 21st century, but West Virginia is sadly still far behind the rest of the country when it comes to internet coverage. Our mountainous terrain and low population density make it extremely difficult and expensive to build out broadband infrastructure without federal assistance, and there are many places that are never even given the chance to apply for this funding because federal coverage maps are fundamentally flawed. As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I have and will continue to fight until every West Virginian has access to the broadband service they need to compete in today’s global market.
Earlier this month when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released its 2019 Broadband Deployment report, I was shocked at just how wrong their numbers were after working with them for years on this very issue. The FCC report stated that 95.1% of West Virginians and 90.6% of rural West Virginians have access to mobile coverage. We as West Virginians who live in and travel around our beautiful state know that this simply is not accurate. Across the state there are large areas which have major gaps in coverage. Counties like Lincoln and Randolph have areas where there is no coverage at all. If you have ever driven along I-79, you know that it’s not a wise decision to start an important phone call.
Last year, I was the only member of Congress to formally challenged the FCC’s broadband coverage maps and prove them wrong. Of the 36 speed tests I conducted in Lewis County in and around the City of Weston, only seven registered a download speed of five megabits per second or higher, and the majority of our tests registered no download speed at all. Every one of those areas was listed as covered on the FCC maps. That is unacceptable.
We will not have accurate maps until we stop letting broadband providers draw them behind closed doors with the FCC and start shining some light on the process. It’s not rocket science. The parent whose child cannot complete their homework at night because they do not have the ability to connect to the internet can certainly tell you they don’t have coverage. So can the doctor struggling to access electronic medical records at a rural hospital. The FCC just needs to accept data from real Americans. That’s why I recently introduced the bipartisan Mapping Improvement Act of 2019 with Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado. This bill would require the FCC to create a public feedback mechanism to allow consumers to be a part of the mapping and data validation process and create a standardized process that would help to get more accurate information from providers on the front end.
The very first chairman of the Federal Radio Commission, the precursor to today’s FCC, was West Virginia’s own Ira Robinson. He was born near Grafton and lived most of his adult life in Barbour County at the Adaland Mansion which — like much of our beloved state — suffers from spotty and inconsistent broadband service. While I know that it’s unlikely that we will bring 5G service to this area in the next year or two, I don’t think it’s too much to ask to at least get places like this on the map.
The Democrat Manchin is West Virginia’s senior senator.