BROADBAND PROMISES, BROADBAND DREAMS – WV Broadband Council Will Use $1.47 Million To Study And Public Relations?

Eric Eyre , Staff Writer Gazette-Mail

A governor-appointed council revealed Thursday that it has $1.47 million to spend on expanding high-speed internet in West Virginia.

Lawmakers passed a bill to establish the Broadband Enhancement Council last year, but provided no funding. The council will pick up funds leftover from the now-defunct Broadband Deployment Council, which disbanded in 2014. The $1.47 million had been sequestered in a Department of Commerce account.

“It looks like we do have some available funds this year,” broadband council Chairman Robin Hinton announced at a meeting Thursday at the state Capitol Complex. “We don’t have to spend those funds all in this year. We can carry those over, if we don’t have things we can spend money on.”

The council has no definitive plans on how it will spend the $1.47 million, but a proposed “strategic plan” unveiled Thursday gives some clues.

The plan suggests hiring a consultant who would develop a broadband “RoadMap” for the state. The consultant would take an inventory of broadband fiber-cable across West Virginia.

“There’s got to be a consulting group somewhere in this world that can be able to look at our state, look at the infrastructure, look at what we have and take the areas that are unserved and underserved and make a recommendation on solutions,” Hinton said.

The consultant would be expected to categorize the state’s broadband options by cost — from most expensive to least expensive. The Broadband Enhancement Council, which didn’t get up and running until last month, would use those suggestions and propose legislation to lawmakers.

“Out of that work product is a menu of solutions,” Hinton said. “Obviously, we could have the Chevy Cavalier or the Chevy Corvette.”

The previous broadband council that folded 18 months ago paid nearly $2 million, or 40 percent of its total funds, to a Pennslvania-based consultant, L.R. Kimball. The firm managed the council’s grant program. The Legislature had allocated $5 million to the old council.

The new Broadband Enhancement Council also plans to spend funds to buy data that shows internet speeds for residential and business customers across the state, according to the strategic plan. The data costs $29,000.

The strategic plan also calls for the council to consider hiring a public relations firm to help the panel develop a “marketing strategy.”

Council members suggested Thursday that the panel support pilot projects to expand access to broadband in rural areas, such as Pocahontas County. In 2014, the Broadband Deployment Council awarded $700,000 to Citynet to upgrade high-speed internet at Snowshoe Resort.

Hinton said she supports a “staggered approach” to broadband expansion in West Virginia.

“I’m sure we’re going to make some mistakes, but I’d rather make a mistake over a four-county area than trying to tackle the state as a whole,” Hinton said.

Also at Thursday’s meeting, internet providers argued over the best way to increase broadband availability in rural parts of the state.

Frontier Communications and cable companies like Suddenlink want the council to help with “last-mile” projects, which bring internet directly to homes and businesses, while Citynet wants the panel to support building “middle-mile” networks, which link communities and spur competition.

“The challenge right now is getting through those mountains and out to that community, to pay for that build to get there,” Citynet CEO Jim Martin told council members. “Our problem is in rural areas. We need to figure out how to get competition out there.”

Martin acknowledged that Frontier owns “middle-mile” fiber networks, but he alleged that Frontier overcharges firms like Citynet that want to piggyback on those networks.

Frontier executives said Martin’s company is the only competitor that complains about Frontier’s prices to lease its fiber.

“There are 40 carriers we have interconnect agreements with, and we do business with each other all the time,” said Kevin Wallick, general manager of Frontier’s operations in West Virginia. “There is only one carrier that feels that pricing is unfair.”

“The challenge isn’t that middle-mile to connect to the world. The challenge is how you connect to that last customer.”

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4869