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Broadband Expansion Coming to Rural W.Va.

A graphic provided by the governor’s office shows in blue the areas where rural broadband expansion would begin under a new program.

CHARLESTON — Citing cooperation between the Legislature and members of the Board of Public Works, Gov. Jim Justice announced a plan to pull down nearly $1 billion in federal funding for broadband expansion in the most needed parts of the state.

Justice announced Thursday he would sign an executive order removing regulatory caps on the West Virginia Development Authority’s Broadband Loan Insurance Program, citing his authority under the state of emergency for the coronavirus.

“We’ve got to be able to underwrite and help our people be able to achieve the bonding; the people who will have the opportunity to bid on this work and get this work up and going,” Justice said. “We need, for this thing to really flow, to increase the overall cap.”

As part of the executive order, Justice also ordered the Economic Development Authority under the Department of Commerce to limit the application approval from the Broadband Loan Insurance Program to no more than is necessary for the first year of the program.

“The caps must be removed because they are preventing the state form responding to the emergency, we have on hand for all the different aspects of all the different things, from direct learning to all the different medical components, so many different things,” Justice said. “If we had broadband now, we would be able to serve our citizens in a lot better way.”

Justice said the executive order was needed so not to lose out on more than $766 million in federal funding available over 10 years through the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Auction.

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.

The first phase of the two-phase auction starts Oct. 22 and will go toward areas with no service. Phase two will focus on areas with partial service.

“This initiative across our state will be an incredible construction project that will employ hundreds, if not thousands of people,” Justice said.

Justice also said a bill would be introduced during the 2021 regular session of the West Virginia Legislature to make the removal of the caps permanent to expedite the construction of fiber to up to 121,000 homes on census tracts identified by the Federal Communications Commission as having little to no high-speed broadband internet.

“Before a dollar is spent, the Legislature will come back into session, I’ll send up a bill, and they will actually review and establish the caps,” Justice said.

Joining Justice for Thursday’s announcement was a bipartisan group of elected officials, including: Republican State Auditor J.B. McCuskey; Democratic State Treasurer John Perdue; Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson; House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay; Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion; House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison; Sen. Bob Plymale, D-Wayne; and Delegate Daniel Linville, R-Cabell.

“We have in this situation a truly bipartisan effort,” Justice said. “Everybody has come together with ideas. This is anything but a Jim Justice idea in its entirety. I just see the beauty of this gigantic deal for West Virginia.”

All participants provided praise to Carmichael, a former executive at Frontier Communications and a business development manager at Citynet, for getting the ball rolling on this plan. Carmichael, who lost re-election to a third term in the state Senate, said the project was a “gamechanger.”

“It changes the paradigm in West Virginia, from looking back to one of looking forward,” Carmichael said. “I want to say to the world that West Virginia is a beautiful, wonderful place to raise your family. This pandemic has highlighted all those amazing benefits that we have in our state. The only thing holding us back is connectivity to the outside world via world-class internet service. This program will break the traditional impediment to our growth and prosperity.”

McCuskey called the program a prudent, conservative approach to helping expand broadband while not putting West Virginia taxpayers and state funds at risk. He also highlighted the need for broadband as people in other states consider leaving densely populated cities for rural areas, such as West Virginia.

“The ability to move and home and work is hampered by internet obviously,” McCuskey said. “As we’re moving past COVID, I think people are going to think of places like West Virginia as a great alternative to the urban lifestyle…if we can start promote ourselves as a place where we have that lifestyle on top of having world-class technology that enables a work-from-home initiative, I think something like this is going to change the way that our economy runs probably forever.”

Prezioso, a retired school administrator, said the program is much needed as the coronavirus is forcing some county schools to start with distance learning due to the spread of the virus. The state has created internet WiFi hotspots at schools and libraries to help students who lack access to reliable internet at home.

“As an educator, I know how important it is to provide a quality education program for all of our students,” Prezioso said. “We’ve seen what online courses can do at the higher education level. I certainly believe this is the way to our future, not only for our students which is so important right now, but as parents are really concerned about sending their students to school.”

Perdue, a native of Boone County, said the program would be vital for southern West Virginia which is struggling with the collapse of coal.

“Coming from southern West Virginia, I know how important this is going to be to all of rural West Virginia and how it’s going to change the game plan so to speak,” Perdue said. “As I travel the state, one of the first things to come up is broadband. We’ve now come up with a solution.”

Miley, who also is retiring from legislative service this year, said the project would be important for marketing West Virginia to the outside world.

“When we expand opportunities for them, such as broadband in our state, we become that appealing place that other people from outside the state and around the country want to come and live,” Miley said. “When West Virginia builds out high-speed internet, we will become that place.”

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