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By SHELLEY MOORE CAPITO

WASHINGTON – Kelly Surveying, a small business with offices throughout West Virginia, has been providing engineering, surveying and inspection services throughout West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania for 20 years.

With several offices and employees, Kelly Surveying depends on the internet to communicate and share documents with staff for new construction projects and to provide immediate response in the event of a mine disaster.

Like many West Virginia businesses, Kelly Surveying has borne the brunt of the state's lack of connectivity. When trying to obtain internet service for a new office, high-speed internet capable of supporting the needs a small business was not available in that location. In order to compete, grow and employ more West Virginians, Kelly Surveying and other small businesses need to be connected.

High-speed Internet access is a pillar of our 21st Century infrastructure and a gateway to economic growth in rural America. Unfortunately, for all the potential opportunities that broadband can offer to rural America, not having this important service can place an almost insurmountable barrier to economic development.

Rural areas risk being left behind. Small communities and businesses across West Virginia and elsewhere in rural America lack this fundamental infrastructure - and lack access to vital opportunities as a result.

A recent study by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) found that 56 percent of West Virginia residents do not have access to broadband services that meet its benchmarks. In rural areas of the state, this number is even higher at 74 percent. West Virginia cannot attract and retain business if we are not connected, and we cannot succeed if we do not have the tools necessary to compete.

This is why I recently hosted a roundtable discussion in Fairmont focused on the benefits of creating a connected West Virginia. The event, The Economics of Being Connected: A Discussion on the Challenges Facing Broadband Infrastructure in West Virginia, featured input from federal officials - including the Federal Communications Commission - state economic development officials, communications providers and members of the small business community. Broadband users, including a small business owner and a telehealth professional, shared their unique perspectives about the need for improved access in West Virginia.

During this roundtable discussion, I unveiled my three-point Capito Connect Plan, which outlines steps for tacking West Virginia's broadband challenge.

Step one of my Capito Connect Plan is understanding the benefits of broadband. By listening to our communities, we can build a West Virginia-specific plan for achieving widespread broadband that meets the unique demands of our state.

Step two is to foster collaboration between government and the private sector. Broadband access will be the result of partnerships between private, local, state and federal agencies and organizations. Fostering collaboration will help eliminate duplicate and outdated programs so that West Virginia can efficiently deliver broadband services to communities.

Step three is promoting economic growth through innovation. Broadband should be easily available and affordable for all West Virginians. This will require creative solutions to accommodate broadband users across all sectors, including schools, businesses and private citizens. Through innovative thinking and implementation, West Virginia will achieve the connectivity that will help boost our economy.

The Capito Connect Plan is a roadmap for bringing affordable, high-speed internet access to every home, business and classroom in West Virginia. I am hopeful that by working together we can achieve this goal.

Along with the Capito Connect Plan, I am launching a listening tour to hear from individuals and organizations around the state. I encourage all West Virginians to attend one of these listening sessions and to share your broadband story with me by contacting my office. By submitting a comment on my website or writing a letter to my office with your suggestions for improving high-speed internet access, we can seize the potential broadband has to offer.

When I delivered my maiden speech on the Senate floor earlier this year, I discussed increased broadband access as one of my top priorities for strengthening our state. In order to make West Virginia's communities stronger, we must remove barriers to economic growth. Increased broadband access is imperative if we are going to compete and thrive.

Too much government control will be counterproductive, choking off private sector expansion projects and hindering new technologies. But we have to recognize that there is a role for government in helping broadband reach hard-to-serve communities. We should leverage resources at all levels of government and encourage public-private-partnerships to expand broadband access in rural areas in West Virginia and throughout the country.

It may sound like a small desire, but connectivity is essential if we are going to get West Virginia's economy growing. This is a necessary and achievable goal, and I am confident that my Capito Connect Plan is the right first step.

Capito, R-West Virginia, is a U.S. Senator.

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