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Rural communities fight for better broadband to survive and grow

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Posted at 4:54 PM, Jun 10, 2021

POCAHONTAS COUNTY, WV. — People in rural areas across the country are hoping better, faster internet reaches them soon.

In much of the country, less than 15% of families in many counties have broadband access, and there is now hope that may change with the discussion of more federal funding for broadband comes with President Biden’s new infrastructure plan.

Pocahontas County, West Virginia is hundreds of miles from a major city, but without reliable internet, it feels even farther.

“I'm being nice when I say it's intermittent because we get on the internet in the mornings and evenings some,” said Cookie Paxton, who lives in Pocahontas County for half the year. “But during the day, if it's warm at all, it's off.”

Mayor of neighboring town Marlinton, Sam Felton, said the internet is almost non-existent when you leave the town’s main street.

“You pull over, you get out of the car, you stand on one leg and you hold your mouth just right and you might get connectivity,” said Mayor Felton.

Felton said this hopeless hokey pokey to get directions or make a phone call is hurting his hometown’s chance to grow.

“I know that we need it,” he said. “If you could move out into the countryside and be assured of being able to operate your business, folks would move here. I've heard them say so, but that's one of the things that is holding them back.”

For business owners already in Marlinton, West Virginia, it’s keeping customers from coming in. Casey Horton is a hairstylist and runs his own business called Alpha Matter in a salon on the main street of Marlinton.

“You're missing income because you're not getting your internet turned on quick enough,” said Horton. “And when you have that little bit of time to make money, that's key to have that.”

Mayor Felton is part of a Broadband Enhancement Council to get better internet for his region. Only 7% of his county has access to broadband, but the solution is costly.

“Probably $25 to $50 million,” Felton estimated.

That’s why he’s hoping President Biden’s infrastructure plan will reach his small town and others like it. The consequences of not having this will hurt education, business, and family life.

“It is too big for local governments. It's too big for most, even investors. We do need the funding that we hope is coming down. We're hopeful, but until we've got the check in our hand, who knows?” said Felton.

Just a few miles up the road from Marlinton, it’s even harder to get connected because of the Green Bank Observatory, home to the largest steerable telescope in the world.

No one within several miles of the telescope is allowed to have WiFi because it interferes with the telescope’s operations. It’s called a National Radio Quiet Zone. The telescope itself is a radio wavelength telescope that can see into the far reaches of space. It is studying planets, the galaxy and is looking for signs of life in the universe.

Families who live on the observatory itself and in surrounding neighborhoods can have wired internet connections, but WiFi and microwave signals interfere with the telescope and are not allowed.

“If we would lose that radio-quiet environment, they're going to be certain science projects that we are no longer able to study with the Green Bank Observatory, which is really one of the cleanest sites for radio emissions anywhere in the world,” said Will Armentrout, an assistant scientist at the Observatory.

Felton agrees the National Radio Quiet Zone must stay in operation with the incredible work that is going on, but he said it is tough to get better service for the entire community because of it.

“It’s a tremendous asset, but it is it's an obstacle in the broadband world,” said Felton. “So, the quiet zone has caused another layer of pain, if you will, in trying to bring coverage about.”

Armentrout said the staff at the Observatory is also pushing for better broadband. Despite having connectivity, that does not mean the connection is fast. Armentrout said the Observatory has been at the forefront of fighting for better connectivity for the whole region, as it would help their neighbors and their own work tremendously.

Donnie Ervine has lived in the quiet zone his whole life and loves the work going on at Green Bank Observatory. He said the need for a faster connection is the biggest problem, not the quiet zone. He has wired internet in his home, just no phone or WiFi service when he leaves it.

“I’m 42, so growing up in the quiet zone wasn’t a whole lot different because there wasn’t internet or WiFi until we were older,” said Ervine, who manages a general store just feet from the entrance to the observatory.

Ervine said the lack of internet keeps his credit card machines from working and makes online business hard, but, in some ways, living without WiFi is welcome.

“We’re more social,” he said. “I think we get together more, but it’s nice to be able to get in your vehicle and not have the phone ringing, gives you some me time."

Yet, he is hopeful the rules of the quiet zone won’t keep better broadband out of the region for years to come.

Because for all the families along West Virginia’s country roads, living a different lifestyle shouldn’t mean living in another world.