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State council asks firms to reveal broadband expansion plans

Group plans to distribute $4M in December

By Eric Eyre, The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The state Broadband Deployment Council is asking telecommunication companies to disclose their specific plans for expanding high-speed Internet in West Virginia.

The council hopes to start distributing $4 million in grant money in December. Council members, who are appointed by the governor, want to ensure that they don't allocate grant money for broadband projects in rural areas where companies already have plans to bring high-speed Internet service.

"We don't want to waste any of this money," Broadband Council Chairman Dan O'Hanlon said during a meeting Wednesday at the state Capitol.

Broadband providers have 60 days to submit their expansion plans.

"Sharing that kind of information is a great opportunity for all the carriers and the council to move this process forward," said Lee Fisher, a Broadband Council member. "We don't want to award any grant money that duplicates. We want to spend this money as effectively as possible."

West Virginia's broadband providers -- including Frontier Communications, Lumos Networks and Suddenlink -- seem willing to comply with the request, but the companies have expressed reservations about releasing "corporate strategy."

"We appreciate the council's sensitivity to the competitive issues involved with a provider's disclosure of future broadband expansion plans," said Dan Page, a Frontier spokesman. "With the council's assurance that such information will be treated as confidential, Frontier, in the spirit of our partnership with the state, will provide the council the information it requested."

Frontier and the other firms plan to sign non-disclosure agreements -- a promise that the information won't be distributed publicly -- with the Broadband Deployment Council.

Lumos Networks spokesman James Nester said the company plans to cooperate, but needs more information before turning over its "broadband blueprint."

"We look forward to continuing to share our overall vision for access to broadband in West Virginia," Nester said. "We're also talking to folks about the significant investments we've already made in West Virginia."

The Broadband Council tentatively plans to accept grant applications between Aug. 13 and Sept. 14.

The state's 11 regional planning and development councils are expected to assist grant applicants.

A 13-member committee -- made up of employees of an out-of-state consulting group under contract with the council -- will review applications and make recommendations.

Council members plan to vote on grant recipients at a December 12 meeting.

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

Last year, grant program discussions stalled while council members debated the use of $126 million in federal stimulus funds to expand broadband to schools, libraries, state agencies, health-care facilities and public safety offices in West Virginia.

Council members also postponed talks about the 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.

State law requires the council to award the $4 million to "last-mile" projects that provide high-speed Internet to neighborhoods, households and businesses, mostly in rural areas. Smaller telecommunication companies and nonprofit groups are expected to apply for the grant funds.

The grant money also can be used for projects that encourage consumers to sign up for high-speed Internet.

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

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