×
X logo

Today's breaking news and more in your inbox.

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)

You may opt-out anytime by clicking "unsubscribe" from the newsletter or from your account.

West Virginia Working To Avoid Past Broadband Mistakes

photo by: Graphic courtesy of West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council

The pink in this map represents areas of West Virginia lacking access to high-speed broadband.

CHARLESTON – West Virginia has potentially more money than ever to expand access to high-speed fiber and wireless broadband from the tops of the hills to the bottoms of the hollers. State officials see this as a second chance and to set the stage for the future.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Treasury Department announced that West Virginia is one of four states to have their broadband expansion projects approved through the $1.2 trillion American Rescue Plan Act’s Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund.

The state is now free to spend its $136 million ARPA allotment for three broadband expansion programs created by the new Department of Economic Development last June. The funding will help expand high-speed broadband to 20,000 locations in the state, or 10 percent of locations in the state that lack access to broadband.

The funded programs include the Line Extension Advancement and Development (LEAD) program, which will expand existing network line extensions; the Major Broadband Projects Strategies Program, which focuses on major broadband infrastructure investments; and the GigReady program, which will provide local government/matching broadband funding incentives.

“We’ve been positioning West Virginia for this for almost a year the second we walked in the door,” said Mitch Carmichael, cabinet secretary for the Department of Economic Development, in an interview Wednesday from the sixth floor of Building 3 at the State Capitol Complex in Charleston. “This was a big deal for the State of West Virginia to get this money early and to start helping our citizens even sooner.”

The broadband funding approval comes a month after West Virginia received the second tranche of $1.35 billion in direct state COVID-19 funds through ARPA. The funds can be used for coronavirus-related expenses, but they can also be used for certain infrastructure projects, including broadband expansion. Counties and cities in the state already received a combined $679 million through ARPA that can also be used for broadband projects.

The state is also expected to receive $100 million for broadband expansion through the $1.2 billion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by Congress last November. West Virginia has already put $10 million into a program for rapid wireless deployment projects in the state.

PAST IS PROLOGUE

With all of the available broadband funding, further scrutiny of how those dollars are spent by the state and used by internet service providers and telecommunications companies is crucial.

Del. Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, is chairman of the House Technology and Infrastructure Committee and a non-voting member of the state Broadband Enhancement Council. He said constant vigilance is key to making sure that past mistakes in broadband deployment never happen again.

“I think what we’ve got to do is to constantly get updates and hold providers, the department, all of government, and hold ourselves accountable to make sure that that as these dollars are being deployed and as more broadband is being built, that we constantly follow up and make sure that we did in fact get what we paid for.” Linville said in a phone interview Thursday.

One of those past mistakes was the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP). In 2009, the state applied for a $126 million stimulus grant through BTOP for broadband expansion in West Virginia. Frontier, the sub-recipient of the grant, was supposed to build middle-mile fiber connections and allow competitors to also access these lines at lower rates.

The state’s goal was to connect hundreds of anchor facilities to high-speed broadband and build a fiber line between West Virginia University and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Pocahontas County. But Bridgeport-based internet service provider Citynet filed suit against Frontier Communications in 2014, accusing the telecommunications company of allegedly misusing $40.5 million in federal grant funding to build a statewide broadband network only benefiting Frontier. That lawsuit is ongoing.

Frontier was later accused by the Inspector General’s Office for the U.S. Department of Commerce for marking up invoices to the state by as much as 35 percent and charging the state millions in indirect costs that were not allowable. The state was forced to pay $4.6 million in 2019 to repay the federal government for Frontier’s billings. West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey filed a motion to intervene in Citynet’s lawsuit to recoup $4.9 million in penalties and fees from Frontier.

In another controversy, the state used $24 million in BTOP funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to purchase network routers for public facilities, such as schools and libraries. The routers turned out to be overpowered and far too large and complex according to a 2013 legislative audit, meant for large companies, not smaller schools and libraries.

Linville said part of what led to the failures of BTOP was a true lack of oversight until after the damage was done.

“What we’ve learned from the failures from a decade and more and ago was that for years those questions weren’t asked and ultimately, it was not successful,” Linville said.

One thing that has changed over the last 12 years is the markets have gotten more competitive. While Frontier and Suddenlink remain the largest providers, there are multiple mid-size and smaller providers for consumers to choose from. Carmichael said the process for internet services providers to gain access to the ARPA funds is extensive and competitive.

Carmichael said the state wants to create a market where multiple providers can thrive and give consumers more options, which will provide incentives for providers to improve their services.

Linville said discussions continue with the Governor’s Office, the Department of Economic Development, and various stakeholders on future legislation after Gov. Jim Justice vetoed House Bill 4001, a bill that included a number of consumer protections and penalties to hold internet service providers accountable for their expansion. Justice vetoed the bill over concerns it would run afoul of FCC regulations and over concerns companies had.

“It’s very important that we get this right. I think that’s ultimately the goal of everyone,” Linville said. “What are we going to do to make sure that happens? In the law that we’re working on and that we passed, the effort here is to make sure that we are on a sound legal footing for every element of the bill.”

LEARNING FROM MISTAKES

Including previous funding through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Appalachian Regional Commission, and the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America and Rural Digital Opportunity Fund program, West Virginia has more than $1 billion in funding for broadband expansion projects.

In fact, a U.S. Government Accountability Office report to Congress released last week found that between 2015 and 2020, approximately $44 billion was spent by the federal government on broadband deployment nationally. The federal government has more than 100 different programs, many that overlap with each other, across 15 agencies. Yet, the GAO report found that as of 2019, 14.5 million people still lack access to fiber broadband.

U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., questioned Alan Davidson, administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, during a Thursday morning meeting of the Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband.

“I questioned the NTIA administrator today because he’s going to administer the next tranche of money that’s coming from the infrastructure bill,” Capito said Thursday afternoon during her weekly virtual briefing with reporters. “Instead of creating another bureaucracy, feed into those programs that have been, I think, thoughtfully created. (Davidson) assured me that that’s what they’re hoping to do, and I think that will help us in West Virginia.

Capito said the key to making sure unserved West Virginia residents receive access to broadband going forward is the state’s innovative efforts to improve broadband mapping. The state Broadband Enhancement Council, and now the Office of Broadband within the Department of Economic Development, have interactive maps that show in greater detail parts of the state with no service or slow service.

“One way to make sure that we use the money and it gets directed exactly to where it needs to be — that last house and that last business — is to have accurate maps,” Capito said. “We need to be agnostic as to the technology because I think that’s going to help us, but we also need to have a concerted plan.”

Speaking Monday during a conference call with reporters put on by the White House and the U.S. Treasury Department to announce the ARPA Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund awards, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va,, said that with all the available funding currently and the funding that’s coming over the next five to 10 years, there is no time to waste in get broadband deployed.

“It’s going to make a tremendous dent, and that doesn’t include what’s going be coming down the pike later,” Manchin said. “There’s not an excuse in the world for all of America, especially rural America, to not be connected. If we let this time pass, God help us all.”

NEWSLETTER

Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.73/week.

Subscribe Today