The internet helps a majority of Americans work, shop, connect, and learn. During COVID-19, many businesses have moved totally online, along with schools and even some health care practices. But millions of Americans don’t have access to reliable, fast internet—also known as broadband. A digital divide sits between their communities and the opportunities that the internet offers, with rural areas disproportionately lacking broadband access. Often, this divide is perpetuated by the complex and technical nature of broadband itself, which prevents communities from planning and executing projects that leverage federal broadband funds. Given that the people hit hardest by the transition away from coal typically live in rural areas, a slow connection—or no connection at all—can make a difficult economic transition even more challenging.
At the Just Transition Fund, our mission is to address exactly this kind of challenge to create equitable and sustainable economic opportunities for coal-affected places. That’s why we’re taking a hard look at the digital divide and working to help solve this problem now, before millions of Americans are permanently left behind.
The Just Transition Fund’s Max Shipman recently talked to Natalie Roper, Executive Director of Generation West Virginia, about the exciting work her team is doing to help close the digital divide in the Mountain State. Their conversation, edited for length and clarity, is reproduced below. You can learn more about Generation West Virginia on their website.
Max Shipman: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today. So you live and work in West Virginia, which is a largely rural state. How would you describe West Virginia’s broadband situation?
Natalie Roper: Right now, in COVID, I think we can all agree that broadband has become an agreed-upon necessity. I think it has been that way for a long time, but we’re all experiencing in our daily lives how important it is to have access to high-speed internet for everything.
One report I saw showed that internet speeds have actually improved during COVID in most states in the country, because there have been investments to utilize this infrastructure for everything. West Virginia was one of few states where speeds actually have gotten worse over the past few months, when we need it the most. West Virginia is rural and is experiencing things that most rural places experience, which is that the market alone is not going to solve this problem. In a lot of ways, providers have done what they can do with the assets they have based on the population sizes.
There are lots of federal resources dedicated to broadband—growing amounts with COVID—that are so important to being able to solve that market problem for providers and fill the investment gap so that more providers can build in places that previously wouldn’t have made business sense for them. That’s where we are.
Max: To follow up on that, obviously coal mining is an important part of the state’s economy. How have coal communities in particular been affected by this?
Natalie: If you look at broadband maps, it’s no surprise that our most rural and most coal-impacted communities are often with the poorest service. And I think that is limiting our opportunities to diversify economies, and to have conversations about what additional industries can thrive in those parts of the state.
It’s a little tricky, because the FCC maps are built with data that overestimates coverage. So it’s hard to get a very accurate picture of access. But in general, the more rural a place is, the more problematic broadband is. And here, our more rural areas are also the more coal-impacted.
Max: A lot of Generation West Virginia’s programming is focused on workforce development, but you’ve also worked on broadband issues for several years. What made your organization get involved in broadband rather than just workforce?
Natalie: Before our current initiative, we had been involved in the policy side of broadband—how do you change policy regulations to make it easier for broadband expansion to happen? We passed what was called the “co-op bill” to allow for new, locally driven options so that communities don’t have to wait for people to bring broadband to them, but can really be a part of the solution themselves. We passed that legislation in 2017, and we’re still in a situation where too many communities don’t have access to quality, affordable, reliable access to the internet. It’s clear this isn’t just a policy issue, of course. In March, we started a three-year initiative in partnership with the Benedum Foundation to address what we were recognizing as an interesting gap; there is funding available for this exact purpose—for construction to build fiber, to build out broadband projects—but we consistently just don’t have enough projects in the pipeline taking advantage of the resources out there.
We started questioning if this was a capacity challenge. So often, this problem is talked about at the state level, but the reality is that to move the needle on broadband, it’s a series of projects. You don’t just lay fiber all at once. This problem has to be solved project by project, community by community. And so we started thinking about how we can address it at that level, at the community capacity level.
To understand what was going on, we talked to a lot of folks. We talked to Kelly Workman, at the West Virginia Development Office, who we refer to as the “broadband queen.” She was key in identifying this as part of the problem: there is grant funding, which is important because it fills a gap for providers, but it’s complex. Identifying a community project, filling out the grant applications, doing preliminary engineering to identify the scope in order to fill out the applications—it’s complicated. Sometimes communities apply for planning grants and have a hard time knowing where to go next, and we’re losing folks along the way. We started to identify our role as being community navigators, helping communities go through the broadband project process, with the end goal of getting more people to apply for federal broadband funding.
Max: Where in the state are you focused right now? Is it the entire state, or certain parts of it?
Natalie: Right now, our three-year initiative with Benedum is targeting an 18-county area composed of the Mon Forest region and the Hatfield-McCoy region.
Generation West Virginia’s broadband work targets two nine-county regions
We’re targeting our efforts geographically, but we’re also targeting our efforts in terms of what gap we’re trying to fill. There are a lot of people who are involved and who have been working in broadband in West Virginia for a long time, and we wanted to identify the missing links and how we can help. We don’t need to jump in and do everything, and we definitely don’t need to do things that are already being done. Two regional planning councils in the state specifically have really worked hard to move broadband projects forward. And we’ve been working closely with them to identify what’s worked in their model. They’re trying to take what they’ve learned and apply it statewide, and we’re working to identify gaps and share lessons learned. The regional planning councils are able to identify broadband projects that align with funding opportunities for their communities. They know their regions and needs well, and they know the funding opportunities for their regions well.
Where we think there’s additional capacity needs, where we’re excited to be able to partner and offer that capacity, is in the project-by-project support, supporting local broadband projects in whatever barriers they run up against, and being there ready to help problem-solve it. The barriers are different for each project. Maybe they need grantwriting support, maybe they need to bring partners together or identify market needs. It’s a “whatever it takes'' kind of approach. But we’re really working in that in-between: once a project and funding need has been identified, how can we provide additional community capacity support to move projects across the finish line and have more people applying to available grant sources?
Max: Fantastic. Is there anything else about this work that you’d like to share?
Natalie: Two things come to mind. Part of the approach that I’m excited about is how we’re able to capture lessons learned on the ground. By solving for the local barriers that are coming up, we can also identify the other systematic barriers that are limiting communities at scale and try to address those. So if it’s a policy barrier, being able to communicate that back to the Broadband Council, for example. Or if it’s a funding barrier, being able to communicate that back to funding partners interested in being a part of this work.
The other piece is that we’ve already identified one systemic barrier, which is that some sources of federal funding—really the primary funding source for broadband projects—require funding to go to a public entity. This means that a public entity actually needs to own the broadband assets. There is a really exciting and not very complicated public-private partnership opportunity here, but it requires building partnerships with public entities comfortable with owning assets and contracting out with private providers to operate and maintain that infrastructure. But that has been a barrier that, so far, has taken a lot of communities out of this game—it felt too complicated. So that’s one thing that we’ve already identified that we’re working to address. How can we support the development of those public-private partnerships so that more people can apply for this funding at all? It’s critical for most of these grants to be able to have that as a model.
Max: Let’s say your project is successful, and you’re able to help bring broadband to all of these communities. What kind of benefits do you expect broadband access will have for the communities you’re working with?
Natalie: I think broadband starts to level the playing field for rural communities. It means rural communities are able to leverage other, larger urban and out of state markets for business opportunities. There are exciting opportunities for remote work in places that are attractive for outdoor recreation, for example—people want to be able to come and live here and work for anyone around the world.
And of course, there are huge opportunities and needs in telehealth and remote education—things that felt like choices before COVID are necessities now. We have to be able to lean on the internet to go to the doctor and go to school, and to be able to work if you have a job that’s remote-possible. So there are both opportunities and necessities. We’re seeing what’s really required infrastructure right now during COVID-19, but if communities truly have affordable, reliable, high-speed internet—and can count on it—there’s so much opportunity for economic development. It’s a foundational piece of infrastructure for any business to locate.
Max: This conversation has been really insightful. Before we wrap it up, a lot of people out there might want to do something about broadband in their own community. So if you could give one piece of advice to someone interested in expanding broadband where they live, what would it be?
Natalie: Number one: if you’re in West Virginia, feel free to reach out to us. We are happy to talk with you, help you get connected, and see if there’s something already going on in your community. I think a great first step is reaching out to a local official, someone in your county, a local EDA, a regional planning council, to say what your challenges are and ask if there’s anyone else working on a broadband project. And sometimes the answer is yes. Your local government folks will hopefully be aware of those things. And if not, hopefully they can start thinking about what would be a possible local project and help you get involved.