HUNTINGTON — A dispute between the city of Huntington and Comcast over a $2.35 million POWER grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission that will deliver high-speed broadband to Huntington has been settled.
The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) on Wednesday announced that a grant of $2,353,788 was awarded to Thundercloud Inc., a nonprofit organization that consists of local entities including Marshall University, Marshall Health and Mountain Health Network, for the city’s Thundercloud Gigabit City Deployment project.
Last month, Huntington Mayor Steve Williams said Comcast and corporate telecommunications lobbyists were trying to stop the city from receiving grant funding for the project. Comcast claimed the project was not needed because it provided high-speed broadband. The mayor said speed tests conducted by the city showed that was not the case.
Comcast did not respond to telephone and email messages seeking a response about the grant award.
“We are pleased to have received word from the Appalachian Regional Commission that the Thundercloud POWER Grant has been funded for Huntington,” Williams told The Herald-Dispatch.
“It’s a $2.3 million grant that is giving us the capacity to be able to begin building high-speed broadband that we’ve been speaking about for a good eight years here. This does place us in a competitive position with the largest cities not only in America, but across the world.”
Williams says Thundercloud has plans to build infrastructure for high-speed broadband that will connect Barboursville to downtown Huntington and enable additional broadband deployment in Wayne County.
The project will support approximately 25 miles of fiber construction to create a fiber loop that will connect Barboursville to downtown Huntington and deploy an underground fiber ring linking businesses and anchor institutions to gigabit speed infrastructure.
Once fully operational, it is estimated 500 businesses will utilize the fiber ring and that it will be part of a larger planned broadband network in the nine-county Advantage Valley region.
The project is expected to boost telehealth and tele-learning progress, drive new economic development, serve downtown and technology park businesses seeking better broadband access, and upgrade four key Huntington municipal and public safety facilities.
“The fact is, this is an absolute game-changer,” Williams said.
The loop will also connect to the Thundercloud Data Center, which is planned for a federally designated Opportunity Zone.
The center will provide state-of-the-art, secure, dual-redundant, high-capacity data storage and cloud-computing capacity for the greater Huntington region. Large anchor institutions are likely candidates to use the data center services. The center would also connect to the established data center in South Charleston.
“The Thundercloud project is the virtual ribbon that will tie everything together to make Huntington the economic gateway of the Appalachian region,” Williams said.
“The purpose of this funding is to make a ring so that hospitals, the university, downtown (are connected), and because of competition it will benefit neighborhoods as well. This will position Huntington to compete with all other cities across the world. In 10 years, this will be noted as the one announcement that set the economic transformation forward for Huntington and its citizens.”
Williams says now the fiber must be laid.
“We know the fiber is going to be coming immediately, within the year,” he said. “It has already been laid in Charleston and South Charleston. The idea was to bring it in to Huntington, but it’s not just us. Barboursville is going to benefit from this. It will come all the way down to the Huntington Mall and follow Route 60 to make its way into Huntington.”
Williams said the Thundercloud project began a few years ago when the city partnered with the state and Thundercloud.
“We identified this as our No. 1 priority six years ago,” he said. “When we entered into the Huntington Innovation Project and the America’s Best Community competition, this was a key.”
Williams said while the project is not something people will see, it is something everybody is going to feel.
“This is the game-changer where we are able to create job opportunities and bring prosperity to the area,” he said. “This is going to prove to be an economic boom for not just Huntington, but this region. We’ve said that this area is going to become the gateway to the Appalachian Region, and this affirms that.”
Williams said it’s also going to help businesses.
“The fact is, a business on 4th or 3rd Avenue is going to be able to compete with that business on the other side of the world because of the connectivity,” he said.
“Sixty to 70 years ago, interstates were being built around cities and through cities. This is the 21st century interstate. What this does for us is it places us evenly with any other city around the world. We can now say, ‘Come to Huntington. You can come here.’ We don’t have as many people, we have a wonderful quality of life and now we’ll have the digital life and connectivity that people can have in larger cities so they can come to a small city and be able to do it.”
Williams thanked local and state leaders for their support of the project.
“We also owe a significant debt of thanks to Sen. Robert Plymale, who has shepherded the Thundercloud project along with expert efficiency and leadership. In addition, we have a great deal of gratitude for Gov. Jim Justice, who strongly supported Thundercloud’s grant application, Sen. Joe Manchin, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito and Congresswoman Carol Miller.”
Plymale, D-Wayne, serves as the chairman of the Thundercloud organization and led the development of the organization and advanced the support of the organization among local elected officials, federal and state delegations, Marshall University and other private entities.
“We received an immense amount of encouragement from many avenues, and I am thankful for all of them,” Plymale said.
“In particular, on behalf of the Thundercloud board of directors, I want to thank our governor, Jim Justice, and Huntington Mayor Steve Williams. The governor has been a huge proponent for broadband throughout West Virginia and for this project for many years. Without Governor Justice’s steadfast support and effort on our behalf, we wouldn’t be announcing this tremendous award. Mayor Williams continues to be an ardent supporter of broadband connectivity and Thundercloud.”
Plymale said enhancing broadband internet access and bringing stronger telecommunication avenues to the region has always been a focus of his and the Thundercloud board.
“Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, broadband access has become even more critical for businesses, families and educators,” he said. “I am thrilled to receive this support from the ARC.”
The ARC announced a total of $5.8 million in grants Wednesday to help with projects in West Virginia.
Other local grants included $1,360,852 to Region II Planning and Development Council for a Tri-State aviation maintenance technician program, working with Marshall and Mountwest Community and Technical College.