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Council Hears Update on Rural Broadband Auction, Legislative Priorities

CHARLESTON – The West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council received updates Thursday about the status of the auction that could bring high-speed broadband access to underserved parts of the state, as well broadband priorities for the next legislative session.

Council members heard a report from Fred Feit with Tilson, a company that offers consulting services for broadband issues, regarding the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Auction.

The FCC gave approval for Bridgeport-based Citynet, Bruceton Mills-based Digital/PRODIGI, Bluefield, Va.-based Gigabeam, Lost River-based Hardy Telecommunications and Buckhannon-based Micrologic to participate in the auction last month.

The auction will allocate up to $20.8 billion over a 10-year period to subsidize construction of high-speed gigabit internet in unserved rural areas across the U.S. The first phase of the two-phase auction will go toward areas with no service. Phase two will focus on areas with partial service.

The auction, also known as a reverse auction, started Oct. 29. According to Feit, the auction started its ninth round of bidding Thursday morning.

“The RDOF auction is in mid-swing,” Feit said. “It will probably continue into next week. It’s difficult to determine whether the auction will conclude next week, but that’s certainly a possibility, and it will probably be a short amount of time, a week or perhaps a little longer, after the conclusion of the auction for the FCC to release public facing information regarding who the auction winners are.”

Feit said the auction could conclude in two stages, but will result in the FCC announcing the winners of the auction through public notice. Even then, Feit said it’s not likely the FCC will announce yet what Census block locations were selected through the bidding process. Feit said the information would come at a later stage.

Council member Ron Pearlson raised concerns about how the potential winners of the auction for expanding broadband to unserved parts of West Virginia would implement that expansion. Pearlson said any company that bids and wins West Virginia Census tracts should be encouraged to expand fiber lines versus other less-dependable forms for broadband, such as wireless or satellite.

“From the experts I have been reading and talking to, it’s real significant to West Virginia consumers across the state that fiber would be deployed as substantially as possible,” Pearson said. “Is there any protection in the RDOF auction to give preference to those bidders who are going to extend fiber to the extent necessary so that it’s in place to allow most of our citizens to get the advantages of 5G? I mean, that would just seem to be a very serious matter that ought to be front and center with respect to the objectives of the auction.”

“It’s something like a runaway train without a conductor,” Feit said of the auction. “It’s moving and there’s really no stopping it at this point in time. Literally, the winners will be assigned by the auction system as the budget clears and as the competition dissipates. The winners at this point won’t even be declared by human beings. It’s the auction system that will determine those results.”

West Virginia is eligible for up to $766 million in federal funding available over 10 years through the Opportunity Fund auction, the 13th highest amount available to a state. If companies are able to successfully bid on broadband projects in unserved and underserved census tracts in West Virginia, it could expand broadband to more than 120,000 homes and benefit as many as 221,000 state residents.

The council also heard from Delegate Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, and Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne. Both Lineville and Plymale are non-voting advisory members of the council.

Linville, the vice chairman of the House Technology and Infrastructure Committee, said the Legislature is still looking to make permanent the removal of regulatory caps on the West Virginia Development Authority’s Broadband Loan Insurance Program. Gov. Jim Justice issued an executive order removing the caps.

“It has been announced fairly publicly that we are looking to continue to make that executive order permanent, such as we can continue to leverage RDOF in the out years once the state of emergency is concluded,” Linville said. “The long and short is I believe that barring any particular issue that as the state guarantees performance bonds, that we are able to seek a security interest in the assets that are being insured.”

Last month, Republican lawmakers and legislative candidates pledged to allocate $50 million every year for three years for broadband expansion on top of the $50 million in federal C.A.R.E.S. Act fund set aside for broadband expansion and whatever amount of money the state can bring in from the RDOF auction.

Linville also said he was looking at a bill to include provisions left out of House Bill 4015, Linville’s bill passed in 2020 dealing with broadband enhancement and expansion. These provisions include utilizing routes used by the public and private sector for expansion of fiber.

“What we’ve seen with several of these projects is that there is a significant delay and a significant cost in regulatory compliance,” Linville said. “To the degree that we would be able to have routes which are essentially pre-approved at some moment in time, that if we were ever to find ourselves in a similar situation as COVID-19, we would hopefully be able to pull the trigger on some projects significantly faster and with less delay.”

Plymale said the key is finding ways to continue to draw down federal funding, matching grants, public-private partnerships, and other funding mechanisms to keep broadband projects moving.

“Right now you’re not going to be able to participate in the economy unless you have broadband connection,” Plymale said. “I think that the whole state is fairly underserved to meet the needs of the 21st century. I think that aside from the key elements…that we need to address from legislation, I think the biggest thing that we really need to be doing is looking at additional funding to try to match some of the federal dollars.”

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