Mon Commission gets update on Ring 11 broadband project

Feb. 22—MORGANTOWN — Getting broadband internet service in large portions of western Monongalia County is difficult.

The largely rural, forested terrain and topographical challenges have left large swaths of county residents with little to no service.

For that very reason, Monongalia County's broadband working group has zeroed in on a vertical strip across the western end of the county—identified as Ring 11—to be the initial focus of the county-wide broadband efforts.

On Wednesday, the Monongalia County Commission got an update from the various contractors hired in May 2021 to help lead that effort.

Among the noteworthy takeaways ?

Getting broadband internet service into large portions of western Monongalia County is difficult.

Chris Kirkland, president of consulting firm Lit Communities, shared a conceptual design of the "middle mile " infrastructure needed to provide wireless coverage for Ring 11.

It included the construction of nearly 20 towers in order to provide service to 80 % of the 711 "demand points " (homes and businesses) in the ring.

In less-challenging terrain, Kirkland explained, that network could service up to 20, 000 residents.

"Due to the terrain in western Mon County, it is not a perfect scenario for wireless, " Kirkland said, explaining that wireless connectivity is more flexible and will ultimately lower the costs for internet service providers to come in and provide the "final mile " connectivity to customers, therefore lowering the cost of the service.

"We never dreamed we would get 80 % coverage in Ring 11. That is very, very good coverage in my opinion, " he said.

The cost of final engineering for the Ring 11 project is expected to be north of $700, 000. Then the county will get a better sense of the cost to actually build the infrastructure, which would likely be owned by a county broadband authority operating through the Morgantown Area Partnership.

Once that's all complete and internet service providers begin using that infrastructure to deliver service to homes, one of the county's 14 rings will be complete.

And that kind of sums up another of Wednesday's takeaways, which is the sheer scope and complexity of the countywide broadband effort.

Each of the 14 rings brings its own level of complexity based on available rights-of-way and whether or not the terrain will allow for buried fiber lines or require a wireless signal from tower to tower.

Then comes the question of cost.

The comprehensive broadband plan delivered by the county's consulting team indicated it would likely take at least $25 million out of pocket to build the middle mile architecture county-wide, though Commissioner Sean Sikora, the commission's lead on the project, previously indicated that number is likely low.

The commission has already committed $10 million in American Rescue Plan Act dollars to broadband.

A major focus of the broadband push going forward is grant acquisition.

"We want to get grants. We want to take advantage of all the money that's just flooding Charleston and D.C., " Sikora said, expressing his frustration that grant dollars seem to be moving faster than the vetting of the applicant projects.

"We've taken the liberty to do this on our own and create this whole plan and we're trying to implement it. But one of the things we were counting on was grant opportunities and we're seeing those grant opportunities keep closing up, " he said. "There doesn't seem to be any coordination."

According to information included in Wednesday's presentation, final construction drawings and a bill of needed materials for the Ring 11 project are anticipated in August.

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