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Schools' high-speed installation going slo-mo

By Amy Julia Harris, The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A $126.3 million federal stimulus grant to provide high-speed Internet to hundreds of schools and other public facilities throughout West Virginia is far behind the timeline state education officials had envisioned and is hitting implementation snags, state Board of Education officials learned Wednesday.

Board members said that more than two years after West Virginia received the grant, there was still confusion about how many schools could actually connect to a high-speed Internet network. They also expressed growing frustration with the quality of service and lack of communication provided by Frontier Communications, a major contractor in the project.

"We were given a gift of $126 million, and it would be a tragedy if that money were not spent correctly," said Michael Green, state board of education member, at a meeting in Charleston on Wednesday.

Green expressed worry that "we don't have a process or the vendors in place" to provide West Virginia students with a high-speed Internet system.

As of Wednesday, 257 of the 463 schools in the state scheduled to receive broadband access through the grant had been furnished with the physical infrastructure -- fiber-optic cable and routers -- to connect to the broadband network, said John Dunlap, manager of the West Virginia Office of Technology. But he stressed that even though hundreds of those schools were labeled as "complete" under federal grant specifications, those sites could still not connect to the Internet.

"The federal grant only pays to lay down fiber and provide the routers to the different sites," said Dunlap. "It does not pay to activate service."

Internet service providers like Suddenlink and Frontier Communications have to step in and "activate" the fiber in order for students in classrooms to turn on their computers and connect to the Internet.

There's just one problem, said Dunlap. There is no streamlined system in place to tell carriers like Suddenlink or Frontier that they need to activate broadband networks at schools with ready-to-go fiber optics.

That hole in the pipeline has left state education officials in a quandary about how to explain to school principals why they still cannot connect to a broadband network even though their schools are labeled as "complete."

Green, of the state board, blamed poor management at Frontier for the communication problems and failing to provide clear information to the Department of Education about the status of the stimulus project.

"I am frankly very concerned that Frontier has the skill set and capability to do this," said Green. "If we're not looking at all parts of the puzzle, from fiber to bandwidth in the future, that's $126 million wasted. We know that there are holes in the system, but I want to know who at Frontier I can go to scream at."

No representatives from Frontier attended Wednesday's board meeting, despite invitations from board members to receive broadband updates.

West Virginia received a $126.3 million federal grant in February 2010 to lay more than 900 miles of fiber-optic cable to provide high-speed Internet to more than 1,000 schools, libraries, health-care facilities, public agencies and fire stations across the state. It was the only state in the nation to receive federal funds to create a broadband network to span the state and was planned to serve as a national model.

More than 209 miles of fiber had been built and completed at about 36 percent of the locations as of last week, said Dunlap.

The state awarded Verizon Business Services -- now operated by Frontier -- a $40 million contract to lay fiber-optic cable at all the public facilities and provide access to global networks by February 2013. Frontier purchased Verizon's landline business in West Virginia last year, and the state is continuing its contract with Verizon to pay Frontier.

This was not the first time that the Department of Education expressed concerns about the slow pace and lack of communication of the massive Internet project.

In October, state schools superintendent Jorea Marple demanded answers from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's office about why more progress had not been made getting schools connected to the Internet.

"On a daily basis, education staff across West Virginia express concern about the current lack of progress and the impact it will have on West Virginia children," Marple wrote in the letter.

Marple also raised questions about how the state paid Frontier to build the fiber-optic network with federal grant funds and said the contract doesn't hold Frontier responsible for meeting any deadlines. 

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