Open Access for Broadband Proposed in West Virginia

February 1, 2016

Internet BackgroundA bill proposed in the West Virginia state legislature would authorize that state’s government to build and operate a 2,000 mile broadband network throughout the state.  That infrastructure would be made accessible on an “open access” basis for all Internet service providers (ISPs).  This initiative and other similar government efforts around the world are intended to help expedite broadband access to the many people who currently remain underserved.

Representative Chris Walters in West Virginia proposed the legislation.  The action would permit the state to own and operate so-called, “middle-mile” broadband facilities.  This is the network that bridges the facilities provided by the “last-mile” ISPs who take service directly to consumers and the “backbone” networks of the handful of global broadband service providers.

Matsuura Blakeley BannerThe critical aspect of the West Virginia proposal is that the state would make its network accessible on an open access basis.  All ISPs would be entitled to connect with the state network at nominal cost.  This open access framework is intended to encourage expansion of broadband access throughout West Virginia, including regions and users who are currently not served by broadband providers.

The proposal is controversial.  It is vigorously opposed by large ISPs.  At the same time, the proposal is actively supported by smaller ISPs, communities, and consumers.  Large ISPs argue that the project undermines their significant investment in broadband facilities by introducing subsidized competitors into the market.  Supporters of the proposal contend it is the best way to promote more rapid expansion of broadband access to underserved communities and user groups.

Numerous governments at national, regional, and local levels around the world have applied a variety of models for government involvement in the development and operation of broadband facilities.  Globally, many different local communities have invested in development of broadband systems, for example, but this model has proven to be highly controversial in the United States.

One of the key reasons why governments continue to experiment with a variety of forms of government investment and involvement in broadband facilities development and operation is the growing emphasis on the goal of universal broadband access.  Broadband access for all is an important component of economic development and quality of life improvement programs in nations around the world.

Yet in many jurisdictions, including the United States, the rate of expansion of broadband access throughout the population has not kept up with the ambitious economic, social, and political goals that are premised on such access.  In order to move more quickly toward universal broadband access, many governments have elected to make substantial direct investments in broadband facilities.

Experience now suggests that some form of government involvement and investment in broadband systems is vital to expansion of broadband access at a rate fast enough to support the extensive economic and other public policy goals governments around the world have established.  Initiatives such as the one proposed in West Virginia will likely become more common, and have an important productive role to play in the overall economic, social, and political development plans of governments in all regions of the world.