Spruce Knob was the last community east of the Mississippi to replace its Mayberry-style ringdown phone system. It is ready to be the first to have fiber optic line leading to every house.
One of the most sparsely populated areas of West Virginia is poised to become the first in the nation to have fiber-to-the-home broadband.
Spruce Knob and Seneca Rocks are nestled away in the densely forested mountains of West Virginia’s Monongalia National Forest. This is the Mountain State’s highest elevation, with Spruce Knob topping out at 4,862 feet. Around the bend is Seneca Rocks, a cluster of sheer rock formations that has long been a treasured landmark for local residents and tourists alike.
If the system is finally built, this corner of West Virginia will enjoy a world-class broadband system for two reasons: federal financial support — the same kind of support that brought telephone service to rural America — and a quick-witted (and acting) local communications cooperative.
Currently, federal support for rural broadband is in question, pending further budget cuts and debate over the upcoming Farm Bill reauthorization.
What happened in this West Virginia high country is instructive — not only for what can be done in rural America, but also what could be lost.
Not many people live here, and the isolation and quiet made the area attractive to the federal government during the Cold War. The government built two facilities here: Sugar Grove U.S. Naval Base operated by the National Security Administration and Green Bank Telescope operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.
These facilities required the area to come under a National Radio Quiet Zone, a federal law restricting radio transmissions within a radius of 13,000 square miles. An even stricter state law prohibits any electronic interference within 10 square miles.
These restrictions limit the technology that can be used in the area. “Many times a nearby farmer’s electric fence malfunctions and causes interference and we try go to help them fix their fence,” said Michael Holstine, business manager at the NRAO Green Bank Satellite.
Additionally, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires administrators at Green Bank to approve any radio communication structures in the 13,000 square mile radius adding extra red tape for all communications providers.
All of those factors create a traditional telephone company’s worst nightmare, but they haven’t stopped the Spruce Knob Seneca Rocks Telephone Cooperative (SKSRTC.)
In 1972, area residents were determined to upgrade their “ring down” system. The phone system in Spruce Knob was older than old fashioned. To make a connection, people picked up their phones and were connected to an operator, who would make the call. A local resident connected callers and operated the system out of her home. This part of West Virginia was the last community east of the Mississippi River to use this archaic system.
The West Virginians formed a telephone cooperative in 1972, the SKSRTC. The Rural Electrification Administration, now called the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) of the Department of Agriculture, was inspired by their efforts and granted the co-op a loan of $1.3 million to link the area’s phone service with the rest of the nation. The last call made using the “ring down” system was on May 26, 1977.
Now, nearly 40 years later, thanks to funding and loans from USDA’s RUS programs, Spruce Knob Seneca Rocks Telephone Cooperative will be discontinuing their use of the traditional copper telephone lines and upgrading to fiber lines.
This small community in the West Virginia hills will be the first in the nation to offer fiber-to-the-home to all subscribers. SKSRTC has 1,200 customers and the co-ops service area is spread out — average 2.5 customers per square mile.
RUS granted SKSRTC a $7.7 million loan in 2008 for the project. The fiber lines will increase speed and bandwidth as well as diversify and enhance communications and technology capabilities. The communities will have an unprecedented level of service by most of the country’s standards.
Vickie Colaw, SKSRTC general manager described the co-op’s position as “demographically challenged.” But the people are willing. “The demand is there, and we cannot offer enough bandwidth fast enough,” said Colaw.
For years, the co-op has wanted to expand services to nearby communities, but it was just too costly. However, an opportunity presented itself in 2008 with the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — better known as the “stimulus” act — which distributed $7.2 billion in funding to expand broadband service to rural America.
The programs, administered by the Departments of Agriculture and Commerce, had extremely short application deadlines with onerous and often ambiguous requirements. Rural providers were forced to act fast.
Colaw called the cooperative’s decision to apply a “gamble.” The co-op diverted significant funds toward project-based external consultants to aid in completion of the application.
“What would take over a year to plan and engineer, took us 3 weeks,” she said.
After waiting in suspense, SKSRTC was included in the very last round of funding, receiving an $8.5 million grant from the USDA. It will expand their customer base in surrounding rural communities, including Green Bank.
The fiber optic lines will finally allow Green Bank to have world-beating technology that doesn’t conflict with electronic restrictions.
“Fiber optic is the perfect communications infrastructure for us,” Holstine said. “Local companies like (SKSRTC) are very keen and aware of our requirements, unlike a company located out of state that isn’t aware of all the restrictions and local needs.”
“If it wasn’t for federal programs like these, we could not survive,” Colaw said in response to growing budget concerns and talks of reforming the Universal Service Fund. “We could not exist without USF subsidies and RUS programs.”
Each month users pay a small fee into the USF through their telephone bills. The fee is deposited to a fund, which subsidizes phone services for carriers in underserved communities.
Julius Genachowski, FCC Chairman, wants to use the USF to help expand broadband connections. His USF reforms are now pending.
The reasons for the reform are simple. According to the FCC, although the USF helped connect rural America to telephone service, it “fails to effectively and efficiently target support for broadband in rural areas.”
“Small, rural communications providers like (SKSRTC) serve customers in the nation’s most remote and sparsely populated area,” said Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association. “Proposals to limit the size of the USF program and redistribute existing resources to carriers that have not made the commitment to serving these areas will harm rural networks and the customers and businesses that rely on them.”
The FCC is currently accepting public comments on the proposed USF reform.
“I’ve been working on getting broadband in this county for 6 years and increase our speeds to serve Green Bank and the local community,” Holstine said. “Broadband is now a necessity just like our roads and power lines. The U.S. needs to step it up.”
Miranda Kessel has worked in Congress on telecommunications issues and is currently a graduate student at West Virginia University.