Forty-five percent of West Virginians are using Internet connections with speeds that fall below federal minimum broadband standards, according to a new study by the Communications Workers of America.
Even so, West Virginia's ranks 11th in the nation for the percentage of people with an Internet download connection of at least 4 megabits per second (mbps) - a minimum standard set by the Federal Communications Commission.
"There are misconceptions about how fast things are in West Virginia," said Scott Cosco, external affairs manager for Frontier Communications' West Virginia Operations. "Things aren't as bad as people say."
The study also ranked West Virginia seventh in the nation for median download speeds - about 6 megabits per second.
However, Communications Workers of America Policy Director Debbie Goldman said West Virginia's median speed looks better than it actually is, because of online survey data from a small number of Internet users in the state with extraordinarily fast Internet speeds.
"We were surprised to see how West Virginia ranked, so we took a closer look," said Goldman, whose union represents workers in the communication industry. "A few outliers in the data really affected the outcome."
West Virginians' Internet speeds - based on the percentage of connections that don't meet the federal standard - were faster than all neighboring states, except Maryland with 37 percent below the standard.
Nationally, 49 percent of Internet users failed to meet the federal standard. The U.S. ranks 25th in the world in average Internet connection speeds.
Delaware had the fastest speeds, Alaska the slowest.
The study also included information about speeds that exceed 4 mbps - the speed needed to access high-quality video content on the Internet.
About 45 percent of West Virginia's Internet users had speeds of 4 to 10 megabits per second, while 10 percent had access to speeds of 10 to 25 megabits per second. Only 1 percent had speeds above 25 mbps.
Higher-speed broadband allows people to send and receive high-definition video channels, large data files, medical diagnostics, and take part in real-time video conferencing. Photos also can be downloaded more quickly at higher bandwidths.
"Overall, West Virginia's speeds are too slow to be able to take advantage of the benefits of the Internet," Goldman said.
More than 4,600 West Virginians took part in the CWA's on-line survey.
While West Virginia's Internet speeds may be faster than the U.S. average, a lower percentage of West Virginians have broadband at home compared to residents of most states.
In a federal study released last February, West Virginia ranked 47th in the nation for the percentage of households - 52 percent - with high-speed Internet.
Utah, New Hampshire, Alaska and Massachusetts led the nation at 73 percent, while Mississippi finished last at 42 percent of households using broadband.
Communications Workers of America officials said increasing broadband availabilty - and at faster Internet speeds - spurs economic growth and creates jobs.
Earlier this year, West Virginia received a $126.3 million grant to expand broadband to more than 1,000 schools, health facilities, public safety offices, state agencies and libraries across the state.
The state expects to complete the project in 2013. Though Frontier would own the broadband network, other telecommunications companies could tap into the network and use it to bring high-speed Internet to additional homes and businesses, state officials have said.
"It's an economical way to get the network upgraded deeper into the neighborhoods," Goldman said. "The state grant to expand the network and build out is the right way to go."
Citynet, a Frontier competitor, has opposed the state's use of the $126 million in stimulus funds. Citynet CEO Jim Martin has said that the state's broadband network would solely benefit Frontier.
In addition to the state's broadband project, Frontier has pledged to spend $48 million by the end of next year to expand broadband in West Virginia. Frontier plans to make high-speed Internet (at download speeds of at least 3 megabits per second) available to 85 percent of its customers.
For information on the CWA broadband speed study, go to www.speedmatters.org. The website includes a tool that allows computer users to find out the speed of their Internet connection.
KYLE SLAGLE | Sunday Gazette-Mail illustration
Reach Eric Eyre at email@example.com or 304-348-4869.
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