HUNTINGTON — Lynne Fruth, president of Fruth Pharmacy, said she starts the day asking if any of the company’s stores are having issues with internet service.
“Even if there are no stores down, we still experience very inconsistent speeds and slow responses to outages,” Fruth said during a broadband public hearing at City Hall in Huntington on Wednesday afternoon.
Fruth joined area residents, business owners and others giving their opinions on local internet speeds with an expert panel assembled by the city of Huntington.
The panel was led by retired Cabell Circuit Judge Dan O’Hanlon. Panel members included Cabell County Del. Daniel Linville, who is chairman of the House Committee on Infrastructure and Technology; Chris Chiles, executive director of the KYOVA Interstate Planning Commission and Region 2 Planning and Development Council; David Lieving, executive director of the Huntington Area Development Council; Terrell Ellis, executive director of Advantage Valley; Tony Simental, chairman of the Huntington Mayor’s Gigabit City Task Force; and Stephanie Tyree, executive director of the West Virginia Community Development Hub.
“Every business and resident needs reliable and affordable internet services,” Fruth said. “The internet and cable companies servicing this area need to be held to a high standard. Right now, they are not even being held to a standard that is acceptable. They are coming into our area and taking our money but not providing the services that we pay them for.”
Fruth said in her company’s footprint there are some locations that have competition for internet service, but that’s not the case in Huntington.
“In areas where there was competition, we saw rates drop by as much as 60%,” she said. “We got a lower price, higher speeds and more reliable service. Competition is what we need. These big companies want to have a monopoly, but none of the responsibility. They get to decide who gets service and what the cost will be.”
She said fast, reliable broadband internet service could save her business as much as a quarter of a million dollars a year.
Other business owners, public school leaders and local residents talked about problems with Huntington providers Comcast and Frontier.
Michelle Perry, of Huntington, said she recently became unemployed and has spent the past few weeks online trying to fill out employment applications.
“The internet speeds were so slow that I ended up having to use my cellphone as a hotspot to do a simple application online,” she said. “I call to have the issues fixed, but the next day the same issues are back. You feel trapped because there is nobody else to get the service from.”
The panel is a follow-up to Mayor Steve Williams’ promise of a public hearing to investigate whether private companies are providing the promised levels of broadband service they claim and to also explore challenges and opportunities that exist.
“Improving high-speed broadband infrastructure has been one of my primary goals from the day I took office as mayor in 2013,” Williams said. “My mayoral transition team at the time identified the deployment of high-speed broadband as the one project that would have the greatest impact on economic growth in Huntington.”
Williams says he called for a public hearing amid efforts by Thundercloud Inc., a nonprofit focused on the provision and improvement of broadband internet access in the region, to obtain a POWER grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission. The ARC announced Oct. 14 that it was awarding a $2.353 million grant to Thundercloud.
The grant will allow the organization to begin deployment of an underground broadband fiber backbone connecting Barboursville to downtown Huntington and deploy a last-mile, underground fiber ring linking businesses and anchor institutions to gigabit-speed infrastructure, according to Williams. He said additional broadband deployment will occur in Wayne County.
All of the speakers at the hearing said they support the Thundercloud project.
“This project will be a fantastic benefit to the entire community,” Todd Grass, IT manager at Allevard Sogefi USA, said during his testimony.
Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, is the chairman of Thundercloud Inc. He said the project focuses on the betterment of West Virginia and could expand in the future.
“We hope to go to other parts of the state and the region,” he said.