West Virginia's Bipartisan Approach to Closing the Digital Divide
A conversation with state Senator Robert “Bob” Plymale and state Delegate Daniel Linville
Broadband expansion is unusual in these politically polarized times: a public policy issue that enjoys bipartisan support. As state and federal leaders consider ways to make high-speed, reliable, and affordable internet connections available to all Americans, many have moved to work with colleagues and partners across the political spectrum.
This interview about West Virginia’s bipartisan approach to closing the digital divide, with state Senator Robert “Bob” Plymale (D) and state Delegate and Assistant Majority Whip Daniel Linville (R), has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Many observers think of infrastructure generally—and broadband specifically—as a bipartisan issue. Has that been your experience in West Virginia?
Plymale: The need for quality broadband services cuts across all aspects of society and daily life in West Virginia, from how we learn to how we earn, and in turn how we live well. And our demographic and geographic challenges to providing those services require cooperation and an “all-hands-on-deck” approach.
Linville: Without question, infrastructure investment is a bipartisan issue in West Virginia: Road maintenance improvements and infrastructure improvement generally have united not just the various political parties, but also the separate but equal branches of government. I don’t expect that to change, no matter how polarized politics becomes.
Q: How has that played out in practice?
Plymale: All legislative members, Democratic or Republican, have supported changes in laws to facilitate the reforms that will improve the access, quality, affordability, and dependability of broadband. In the executive branch, Governor Jim Justice and his administration allocated $50 million of the state’s discretionary money under last year’s CARES Act for broadband development. And the West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council, which represents a diverse constituency of broadband users from various occupations and locations throughout the state, has collaborated to provide speed testing and mapping to highlight the need for immediate funding and transformative policy.
Linville: Both houses of the Legislature have worked collaboratively with Gov. Justice and his leadership team to set the stage for significant investment—both private and public—in bridging the divides of our mountains, rivers, and above all else, the digital divide.There is no Republican internet access or Democratic internet access.
Q: Do you think state officials are in a unique position to be leaders when it comes to broadband deployment, even as public conversation has focused either on federal actors like the Federal Communications Commission or on local communities?
Plymale: Obviously, the FCC and the Department of Agriculture, just to give two examples, are both in position to make significant investments, deploy incentives, and formulate policies to deal with the problem of inadequate broadband. On the other end of the spectrum, local communities provide concrete illustrations of the impacts of inadequate broadband on a relatable level.
With that said, state leaders can marshal additional tools and resources to address issues like infrastructure in ways that local leaders often cannot. State leaders also work closely with a variety of stakeholders across their regional spheres to craft solutions that serve as templates not only across their state, but also elsewhere in the country—because so many places in the country are feeling similar effects.
This in no way suggests that local communities have no role here. The people who live and work in communities most impacted by a lack of access are acutely aware of the opportunities and challenges relating to broadband deployment, and that perspective—along with their strong participation—helps inform state leaders and puts policy into action.
Linville: Even though the federal government has the greatest amount of funds available to support these efforts, and the laws passed by the Congress—and subsequent regulations—are supreme, state and local leaders have the ability to innovate and to act significantly more nimbly than our federal partners. State and local leaders can identify challenges at the federal level and look to solve them—like our recent work in utilizing consumer-supplied rather than provider-supplied data to map the state of internet access across West Virginia. We also have the distinct advantage of being able to finely tailor policy, support, and advocacy to handle the unique challenges our state and communities face—including overcoming difficult terrain, trying new approaches, and supplementing the support our federal partners provide.
Q: How would you define your goals for broadband in West Virginia?
Plymale: The primary goal of nearly every public economic development activity is to remove barriers to improving the livelihoods and well-being for the citizens of our state. Enhanced broadband access and the quality of that connectivity will allow West Virginians to securely conduct business, safely attend telehealth consultations, and satisfactorily learn in online environments. Those improvements will reverberate in the areas of workforce preparedness, firm productivity, and business expansion and relocation.
Linville: To connect every West Virginian we must speed deployment, provide financial and regulatory compliance support, and bring people at every level of government and the private sector together to get the job done.
Q: You mentioned the state’s “difficult terrain.” What other challenges do West Virginians face when it comes to, as you put it, “getting the job done”?
Plymale: Among the key considerations in West Virginia, with almost all infrastructure concerns, are our low population density and our geography—not just the terrain itself, but the large distances between communities and anchor institutions.
Linville: How do we tame the vast and challenging wilderness of our mountains and valleys as our forefathers once did while respecting their beauty and natural resources? How can we stretch the dollars available as far as possible while also acting with the speed the public rightly expects? In other words, how do we pay for it?
Q: Can you say more about the financial challenges?
Plymale: It’s often hard to measure transformative impacts with traditional cost-benefit standards. That exacerbates the constraints on our resources, which means we need to find creative approaches to partnerships with private sector actors as well as in how we physically deploy infrastructure components.
Q: What about operational hurdles?
Linville: First and foremost, we must start our work with accurate data—who has broadband, down to the city block (rather than census block) size—and who does not? We’ve accomplished that in large part in West Virginia. Then we must decide how we can best tailor our efforts in legislation, advocacy, financial and other support to make service available to the unserved and increase competition and provide choice to those who currently lack it.
Q: What state programs, policies, and proposals are you considering now?
Plymale: In my opinion, inadequate broadband speeds and service coverage, coupled with the stresses on our weak infrastructure, constitute an emergency condition that requires a considerable fiscal response. Multiple proposals are in progress or forthcoming as the Legislature’s regular session is gearing up. We should evaluate whether to use our state’s Revenue Shortfall Reserve Fund, our rainy day fund. Another idea: Several communities are exploring the expansion of open access community broadband, where a community builds, owns, and maintains the fiber. That would allow multiple providers to compete for business while giving customers a choice of providers. We could see several broadband cooperatives formed this year employing that type of model.
Linville: We in the Legislature and Gov. Justice have committed to dedicating $50 million per year for the next three years as a start. We’ll be releasing our proposals for deploying that money very soon; we intend to use our recent mapping work to guide our policy.
Plymale: Another thing we’re considering is how to better use E-Rate, a federal program that helps lower the cost of deployment for schools and libraries, to bring needed infrastructure to communities.
We’re also likely to develop our own West Virginia-specific approaches for programs, including how we define broadband and how we determine if a household is “served,” meaning it has adequate access to the state’s standard of broadband, or “unserved,” meaning it does not. We could set these definitions of served and unserved by looking at factors such as speed, technology type, or the number of providers offering service in the constituent’s area.
Q: Why are those definitions important?
Linville: Changing these definitions allows us to set higher standards for how public dollars will be spent. We may also address other factors that affect consumers, such as not allowing providers to restrict or slow access to content or to put caps on data usage. We want to make sure West Virginians have access to broadband connections that are useful—not just available.
Q: Anything else the Legislature is considering?
Plymale: President Biden has signaled that Congress passing the Digital Equity Act of 2019—which is still in committee in the Senate—is an early priority for the administration. It’s designed to build capacity for state-led efforts to increase adoption of broadband, and if it passes we would need to enact similar legislation to be eligible for the bill’s federal funds.
Linville: We’re watching Washington, D.C., closely and will work to position West Virginia to take advantage of any available federal support so that we don’t get left behind.
Plymale: It’s often too easy to say that “nearly everything is on the table,” but in this case that’s probably an apt statement.
Q: You mentioned mapping. Can you say more about that?
Linville: We want to implement a new mapping platform for reviewing potential broadband projects, which would allow us to complete in advance all of the red tape ordinarily required in the planning stage of a project. Then once projects are selected, this process would allow permitting agencies to quickly move forward with review and approval. Our goal is not just to reduce cost and regulatory burden, but also to speed up the time between project application and installation of infrastructure.
Additionally, we will support communities, cooperatives, and public-private partnerships focusing on open-access middle mile networks—network infrastructure that any internet service provider may offer service on—that extend the middle mile as far as possible. This model will help bring down the cost of deployment for last mile—residential and small business—connections.
Q: With the pandemic having underscored the urgent need for high-speed, reliable internet, what advice would you give leaders in other states who want to make broadband more accessible for their constituents?
Plymale: Clearly COVID-19 has helped bring additional attention to broadband infrastructure needs, but efforts to make these improvements have been underway for some time. This is a necessarily collaborative exercise that will not occur immediately: Providing for equitable access and a satisfactory level of service takes input from a variety of stakeholders and requires both policymakers and stakeholders to be imaginative and open to new models of infrastructure delivery.
Linville: If you want to bridge the digital divide, you must first build bridges at every level of government and extend those to the private sector as well. Great ideas can come from many places, people, and perspectives, so get as many people in the room—or the teleconference— as you possibly can that have any experience as customers, providers, community leaders, or government. Listen to everyone willing to substantively discuss the policy as if they know something you don’t—because likely they do. Try to do as Gov. Justice has often asked throughout this pandemic in his now-famous “Jimism”: “Pull the rope in the same direction.” Study the successes of other states and study the failures of the past so that you don’t repeat them—and if a policy or plan has worked elsewhere, and you believe it could benefit your community or your state, do it. Now is the time to be bold.