Internet access in West Virginia

The following editorial appeared in The Herald-Dispatch, Huntington, on Dec. 15:

Thousands of residents in West Virginia — and potentially the state as a whole – received some positive news last week about planned improvements to Frontier Communications’ Internet service.

An agreement announced by state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey commits Frontier to spending $150 million over the next three years to improve its customers’ Internet speeds, with the additional impact of extending higher-speed Internet service to areas served by Frontier that now do not have it, according to Morrisey’s office.

That must be considered encouraging to Frontier’s existing Internet customers who said they were paying for “high-speed” service but weren’t getting it. In addition, those without what Frontier labeled high-speed service may gain access to such service more quickly than they would have otherwise.

The pact is important because many of Frontier’s customers in West Virginia do not have access to high-speed Internet service from any other supplier than Frontier. That not only inhibited Internet communications and usage for residents, but was viewed as an inhibitor of economic development because businesses in those areas also did not have high-speed Internet capabilities to carry out their work and communications.

Frontier entered the agreement voluntarily, Morrisey said, and admitted no wrongdoing. But Morrisey noted that his office pursued the agreement with Frontier because of a large volume of complaints from customers who said they expected Internet speeds of up to 6 megabytes per second but often were served by speeds of 1.5 megabytes per second or lower. And reports issued by the state over the past couple of years say that Frontier, the state’s largest Internet service provider, has service speeds significantly lower than other providers in the state, although Frontier contends those studies were skewed.

In any case, 28,000 Frontier Internet subscribers to high speed service will now see a reduced monthly rate of $9.99 until the upgrades promised in the agreement yield a speed of 6 megabytes per second. That equates to a monthly savings to them of $10 to $20.

After the announcement of the settlement, Frontier spokesmen said the company had intended to address the speed issues and that the agreement will accelerate that process. In addition, the company is also obligated to continue with its infrastructure upgrades already planned in conjunction with an annual $38 million federal grant over the next five years.

The key point going forward is for the attorney general’s office to monitor Frontier’s work to meet its new commitment. While the reduced monthly charges give Frontier a strong incentive to complete the upgrades in a timely fashion, that does not absolve the attorney general’s office from monitoring the progress, ensuring the money is spent efficiently and that acceptable Internet speeds are realized on time. Questions have been raised in the past regarding a separate project in which Frontier was to expand broadband Internet service under an economic stimulus program launched in 2010. If this new agreement with Frontier is to produce the results as promised, strong oversight should be part of the equation.

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