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06/15/2011
Council plans to distribute $4.4 million in broadband grants next year

By Eric Eyre, The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The state Broadband Deployment Council plans to distribute $4.4 million to extend high-speed Internet service to rural communities across West Virginia, starting next May.

The Broadband Council expects to accept applications for the grant funds in February or March -- after the group draws up "emergency rules" that streamline the grant application process.

The state Legislature set aside the grant money more than three years ago, but the council has yet to fund a single broadband project.

Dan O'Hanlon, the council's new chairman, said Wednesday the group must make the grant program a priority.

"This is crucial," said O'Hanlon, a former Cabell County judge who joined the council last month. "This is the prime focus of the West Virginia Broadband Council. We're moving forward and making progress in providing access to broadband for the people of West Virginia."

That hasn't always been the case.

Last year, grant program discussions stalled while council members debated the state's use of a $126 million in federal stimulus funds being used to expand broadband to schools, libraries, state agencies, health-care facilities and public safety offices in West Virginia. Critics -- who included a former Broadband Council member -- alleged the money solely benefited Frontier Communications and should be spent building a "middle-mile" broadband network that all telecommunications companies could tap into. Federal officials rejected the arguments.

Council members also postponed talks about the $4.4 million grant program while waiting for state officials and consultants to complete an interactive computer map that details broadband access in West Virginia. Some high-speed Internet providers were slow to disclose data necessary for the map.

O'Hanlon said the council still needs additional broadband mapping data -- such as Internet speeds and broadband subscription rates in specific areas -- before the group starts to take applications and distribute grants.

"I want this council to have the best information to make these crucial decisions," O'Hanlon said at Wednesday's council meeting in Charleston. "We simply need more data to make our decisions."

The council released a proposed application for grant funds Wednesday. Applicants will be asked about a dozen questions, including whether their project creates jobs and how much of their own money they plan to spend.

Broadband Council member Lee Fisher, who heads the grant application committee, said project sponsors also must disclose what they plan to charge customers for broadband service, and the Internet download and upload speeds they expect to offer.

"The application will force people to come up with answers as to why they need this money," Fisher said.

Representatives of West Virginia's 11 regional planning and development councils also attended Wednesday's meeting. The agencies plan to assist grant applicants.

State law requires the council to award $4.4 million to "last-mile" projects that provide high-speed Internet to neighborhoods, households and businesses, mostly in rural areas. Smaller telecommunications companies and nonprofit groups are expected to apply for the grant funds.

The council hopes to allocate additional broadband grants -- presumably about $5 million a year -- on an annual basis, provided the Legislature allocates the funds.

Also Wednesday, the council voted unanimously to extend a contract with a consulting firm, L.R. Kimball & Associates of Ebensburg, Pa., through the end of 2014. Kimball will be asked to help the council process and review grant applications. The state has paid L.R. Kimball more than $408,000 for broadband consulting work during the past two years.

The council next plans to meet July 13.

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