June 30, 2023

Fighting for equal access

In 1936, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Rural Electrification Act into law, legislation that installed electricity in remote areas across the United States, finally connecting communities in rural America to the electric grid. This was critical to leveling the playing field for all Americans and creating a stronger and more prosperous nation.  

Nearly 90 years later, we find ourselves fighting for equal access to high-speed internet for rural Americans–the modern-day equivalent of the fight for rural electrification. It’s simple: like food, water and electricity, broadband connectivity is essential to anyone who wants to fully participate in our 21st century economy. Just as roads, bridges and canals led to a burst of economic activity in the past, high-speed internet means more educational and job opportunities, advanced healthcare, and so much more. Unfortunately, for far too long, as the global economy has become increasingly digital and better connected, places without connectivity like rural West Virginia have been once again left behind.

But we are now closer than ever to making sure every West Virginian has access to affordable and reliable broadband. This week, I proudly joined my colleagues on both sides of the aisle in announcing a $1.2 billion federal investment — the largest in the history of our state — that was made possible through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.  

Like many problems in Washington, the problem was multi-layered and the laws were written in a way that favored urban cities like New York and San Francisco. Before we could even start fighting for increased federal funding to deploy more broadband, we had to fix the broadband maps themselves. It sounds simple but it was anything but. For decades, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was allowing Internet providers to draw the maps, and — not surprisingly — they were wildly inaccurate with grossly overstated coverage. In 2015, the FCC reported that 99.9% of Americans had wireless coverage. And this was critically important because these were the same maps used to write the formulas that determined what states, counties and cities would receive federal broadband funding. Simply put — without correcting these maps, West Virginia would never have received the resources necessary to fully address the lack of coverage.

In 2016, I brought then-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to Grant County to see firsthand just how wrong the maps were when it came to illustrating broadband coverage in West Virginia. From the top of Mount Storm, I encouraged Chairman Wheeler to check in on his office back in Washington using his cell phone, his laptop, or whatever device he chose. Much to his surprise, he didn’t have any service whatsoever. That visit kicked off what became one of my biggest priorities since joining the Senate — correcting the FCC maps.

I started by building a bipartisan coalition and partnering with Senator Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi, to introduce legislation that would require the FCC to collect wireless broadband coverage to gain a fuller picture of the coverage across the country. From there, the FCC established the Mobility Fund Phase II Challenge Process that allowed individuals across the country to conduct their own speed tests and submit them to the FCC to illustrate the broadband coverage in their area. In 2018, the FCC granted me a waiver to allow me to formally challenge their maps, and I am proud to remain the only Member of Congress to formally prove them wrong. But that was just the beginning. Over the next several years, with the help of my fellow West Virginians, my office submitted 2,400 speed tests to the FCC. This ultimately resulted in the passage of the Broadband DATA Act, which directed the FCC to finally update its maps with the help of the American people.

At the same time, when we were debating the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, I fought to include language that would tie the broadband funding directly to these updated maps because distributing this funding before the maps were updated would have left West Virginia high and dry. That’s why, in December, I partnered with the West Virginia Broadband Office to host an information session on how to challenge the maps. That work paid off. When the FCC finally released its updated maps in May of this year, more than 86,000 new unserved locations in West Virginia were identified. Thanks to the sustained efforts of West Virginians to submit these speed tests and demand maps that more accurately depicted the reality on the ground, the FCC finally acknowledged what West Virginians had been saying for years: that West Virginia was one of the least-connected states in the country. In fact, the new maps now show that more than a third of the state is unserved, making West Virginia the second least-connected state in the country.

As a result, West Virginia was awarded more than $1.2 billion.

I am proud of what we accomplished together, but our work is not done. I will continue to work with state and local officials as well as Internet providers to make sure these investments are properly allocated and West Virginians have access to the Internet at a price they can afford. I urge all West Virginians to please stay engaged keep me and my office informed about what is happening on the ground in your community so we can ensure that every West Virginian has access to the affordable internet service they deserve. It wasn’t good enough for our parents and grandparents that most places had electricity; they ensured that everyone had the same opportunities.

This federal investment is nothing short of transformative for our state, ensuring every West Virginian — including our students completing their assignments to our small businesses connecting with their customers — can prosper and compete in the 21st century. This broadband funding is yet another example of what we know to be true — if we put partisan politics aside and work together, the future is bright for West Virginia.

By:  Senator Joe Manchin