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Broadband internet service could be moving into underserved areas of Logan and Mingo counties in the next two years following a ruling by the Public Service Commission of West Virginia.

The PSC announced Thursday that it has approved Appalachian Power’s application for a middle-mile broadband infrastructure expansion project in Logan and Mingo counties and an associated cost recovery mechanism.

Appalachian Power proposed building a middle-mile broadband infrastructure expansion project for construction and installation of more than 400 miles of fiber in the two counties. It is estimated that there are approximately 15,200 currently unserved potential customers (residential and business) in the area. It is also estimated that 60% of the unserved residents and 90% of unserved businesses in the project area would take the new broadband service once it is offered.

Appalachian Power will be allowed to recover costs of the investment through a broadband surcharge (BBS) applied to customers’ bills. The PSC estimates the cost to the power company’s residential customers to be less than 20 cents per month systemwide.

“Lack of broadband service has a crippling effect in rural areas of West Virginia,” PSC Chairman Charlotte Lane said in a news release. “Businesses, schools, and students have suffered and fallen behind due to the lack of connectivity. The Public Service Commission is pleased to be able to play a role in getting West Virginia connected.”

The PSC release projected capital cost for the project to be about $61.3 million, with an annual operations and maintenance cost of approximately $1.2 million in the first year and $1.74 million per year in future years.

Chris Beam, Appalachian Power president and CEO, said in a company news release, “The global pandemic brought a heightened sense of urgency to solving the digital divide, in which rural residents without broadband availability are unable to work, learn or access health services from home. We are well-positioned to help expand broadband access in rural parts of our service area and are excited to be part of the solution to this longstanding issue.”

Beam said major service providers install the backbone network that ultimately provides access to the internet. “Last-mile” providers install the service to homes and businesses and serve customers directly. In rural areas, providing the “middle-mile” fiber network like the one that will be built in Logan and Mingo counties is often the most difficult part of creating a broadband fiber network. Beam noted that the expansion of fiber has the added benefit of providing a robust communications platform for electric grid enhancements that improve energy efficiency and service reliability.

The project plan calls for internet service provider GigaBeam Networks of Bluefield, Virginia, to own, install and operate the last-mile infrastructure needed to deliver broadband services to customers in the project area. GigaBeam will have access to the middle-mile facilities in phases as construction progresses. The phased-in approach will allow GigaBeam to coordinate its equipment installations with middle-mile construction and connect new broadband service customers on a rolling basis throughout the construction process, according to Appalachian Power.

Construction is expected to begin within 180 days and be complete approximately 24 months after the start of construction. First-year project costs will add 15 cents a month to the bill of the companies’ West Virginia residential customers using 1,000 kilowatt hours per month, according to Appalachian Power.

The West Virginia Legislature passed legislation in 2020 allowing the PSC to review written plans submitted by electric utilities to construct middle-mile fiber broadband assets within the power supply zone using existing and new utility assets and for an associated cost recovery mechanism.

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