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12/05/2012
Superstorm Sandy damage may push back statewide broadband project deadline

By Eric Eyre

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Superstorm Sandy caused "significant damage" to a new fiber-optic Internet network being built in West Virginia with $126.3 million in federal stimulus funds, according to a letter released by the state Office of Technology on Wednesday.

The damage has prompted state officials to consider asking the federal government to extend the deadline for completing the high-speed broadband project. The state now has until Jan. 31 to finish the work, or risk losing any unspent funds.

The extension would likely allow Frontier Communications to build more fiber to public facilities. The state also would have time to construct additional wireless towers that serve a statewide emergency communications network.

"We are assessing damage," said Gale Given, chief technology officer for West Virginia state government. "We know of fiber damage and have to visit towers to check them."

In a Nov. 20 quarterly update about West Virginia's high-speed Internet expansion, state Homeland Security chief Jimmy Gianato made no mention of any damage to the fiber network or towers. Gianato's son, Adam, is working as a tower inspector on the broadband project in Southern West Virginia.

Gianato sent the report to the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, which is overseeing the stimulus project.

The third quarter ended on Sept. 30, a month before the storm hit, but the federal report asks state officials to declare whether they expect any "challenges or issues that may impact planned progress" in the upcoming quarter -- October through December. Gianato did not report the storm damage.

Gianato did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Given said Gianato told her Wednesday afternoon that he had "just become aware" of the storm damage to the new fiber network at the time he wrote the Nov. 20 report and "had no information on the scope of the damage."

In 2010, West Virginia received $126.3 million in federal stimulus funds primarily to buy routers and bring fiber-optic cable to more than 1,000 "community anchor institutions" -- schools, libraries, county courthouses, health centers, State Police detachments, 911 centers, state agencies and other public facilities.

The state is also spending $50 million from the grant to upgrade the state's wireless tower network that serves first responders -- police, firefighters and paramedics.

At a meeting last week, Gianato told state lawmakers that radio service through the microwave tower network wasn't interrupted during Sandy.

Given said Wednesday that the state plans to conduct a "physical inventory" of the state's 96 tower sites.

Last summer, state officials overseeing the broadband expansion project announced that $9 million would be left over from the $126.3 million grant.

In October, the state Office of Technology solicited ideas for spending the excess funds. Telecommunications firms submitted numerous project proposals, and state officials started evaluating the projects several weeks ago.

The state has put that review on hold, Given told the companies in a letter sent out this week.

Given wrote that federal and state officials "both agree it is important to repair the damage before the remaining funds are allocated to additional projects."

Federal officials also recently announced that grant recipients -- including the state of West Virginia -- could petition to extend broadband project deadlines to Sept. 30.

If West Virginia doesn't receive an extension, the state risks having to return millions of dollars in unspent stimulus funds.

"If necessary, we plan to seek an extension of the grant to ensure we are able to repair the damage done by the storm," Given wrote. "Once the need for additional repairs has been assessed, the grant implementation team will reassess the funds available and notify you of their intent to proceed."

Given said state officials haven't discussed whether to ask for an extension through Sept. 30 -- or an earlier date.

The U.S. Department of Commerce Inspector General and West Virginia Legislative Auditor are reviewing the state's use of the $126.3 million grant.

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