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Estimated $9 million will be left in broadband expansion budget

By Alison Matas, The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- There's going to be $9 million left over in the state's $126.3 million broadband expansion budget after all the expenses to date are accounted for, a member of the grant implementation team estimated Wednesday.

During a financial update at the West Virginia Broadband Deployment Council meeting, Mike Todorovich said that's not an official number, however, and he plans to compile a formal budget next week.

Two years ago, the state's homeland security agency was awarded $126.3 million in federal stimulus funds to put broadband in public institutions such as schools, 911 call centers, libraries and health clinics. And for months, broadband deployment council members have asked state officials to estimate how much money wouldn't be used in hopes that the excess funds could be reallocated.

On Wednesday, council member Lee Fisher said Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin needed to know how much money remained so he could ask the federal government to put it toward other broadband expansion projects.

Fisher said his concern is that accounting -- or a lack of accounting -- will take too long, and there won't be enough time for the governor to decide how to use the extra money before the grant expires in February.

Fisher said once the formal budget is complete, it will go to the Governor's Office. Several proposals about how to use the excess funds have come in already, and the originators of those might try to convince the governor how to use the money, he said.

As of last week, West Virginia had spent $56.4 million of the $126.3 million broadband grant.

The Gazette also learned last week that the U.S. Department of Commerce inspector general started a review into West Virginia's use of the $126.3 million to expand high-speed Internet.

The Office of Inspector General plans to determine whether the state spent the broadband stimulus funds "properly and efficiently." The office also will examine whether West Virginia's application for the stimulus funds included "material misrepresentations," according to a letter released by the inspector general's audit division.

State officials have used $24 million from the grant to purchase Internet routers. The Gazette has reported that the Cisco 3945 series routers were built to serve a minimum of 500 users, and up to tens of thousands of users. But the state has installed the "enterprise-class" devices in some public facilities with only a few Internet connections. Seventy percent of the routers wound up in schools and libraries.

Earlier this summer, more than 300 routers remained boxed in storage. The routers -- purchased in July 2010 -- came with a five-year service warranty, so the state already has lost two years of free maintenance on them.

Also during Wednesday's meeting, council members approved the legislative rule and application for funding for projects that would increase broadband access in rural parts of the state.

The council has $3.3 million to award in grants, the Gazette previously reported.

Chairman Dan O'Hanlon said Wednesday the focus should be on submitting strong project proposals, not on money. He also said having applications for more money than can be given away might give him leverage to petition for more.

O'Hanlon said, theoretically, the time frame for proposal submission began Wednesday, but, per rules from the state Ethics Commission saying that no industry members can accept grant proposals, the council first must create a subcommittee.

"I think this will take a number of days," O'Hanlon said.

The submission deadline is Aug. 24, and the 60-day notification period will begin Aug. 31, Fisher said.

Also during the meeting, council member Dana Waldo, with Frontier Communications, said the company announced July 24 it was partnering with a network system to help bring broadband via satellite to thousands of rural homes and businesses.

The new service is called Frontier Broadband and will increase broadband speed to places that already have Internet or introduce broadband to places that have gone without.

"That, in theory, says access is available everywhere," Waldo, said.

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