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Telecoms vie for $9M in broadband stimulus funds

By Eric Eyre, The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- With $9 million left over from a $126.3 million federal stimulus grant, West Virginia technology officials are reviewing seven proposals to spend the money, including a $1.1 million project to buy a tour bus that would travel the state and spread the word about the advantages of high-speed Internet service.

Bridgeport-based Citynet, which set up a website criticizing the state's use of the stimulus funds, submitted the "iBus" proposal this week.

Citynet also would use the stimulus funds to equip the tour bus with laptops and iPads.

"The bus will demo technology and expose people to the Internet," said Citynet CEO Jim Martin, who serves on the West Virginia Broadband Deployment Council.

A state Office of Technology committee plans to select the best of the seven project ideas and submit them to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's office and the National Telecommunications & Information Administration -- the federal agency overseeing the stimulus grant -- for approval.

West Virginia must use the estimated $9 million in leftover funds by Feb. 13 or risk having to return the unspent grant money to the federal government.

"It's a short time frame, so we're trying to expedite the process," said Gale Given, West Virginia's chief technology officer.

Four companies and a state agency requested a combined $15 million, so not all projects will be funded.

"Overall, it's a pretty good mix," Given said Thursday. "We didn't really have any specific project in mind when we put out the request . . . ."

WVNET, a state Internet-services agency that works primarily with West Virginia's colleges and universities, submitted two proposals.

The agency requested $2.13 million to help the Kanawha County Public Library system set up video-conferencing "hubs" and a video repository.

The project would establish video centers at the Main Library in downtown Charleston, and at the Elk Valley, Riverside and St. Albans branch libraries. Library leaders hope to use the equipment for educational programs and staff training.

"It's so they can be a 21st-century library," said Dan O'Hanlon, executive director of WVNET and chairman of the state broadband council.

WVNET also requested $3.7 million for a second project that would expand the state's ability to store data. The agency has proposed purchasing three "Global Environment for Network Innovations [GENI] racks."

"The federal government has announced that, for the U.S. to remain a leader in network innovation, GENI racks should be deployed in every state so our researchers can continue to create the best network in the world," O'Hanlon said.

Citynet also requested funds for two projects.

The bus project -- called an Internet Broadband Utilization Service, or iBUS -- would travel to West Virginia's most rural areas for the next 10 years, according to the company's proposal.

Visitors would learn how to use the Internet to "stay in touch with friends and family, search and apply for jobs, seek advice and save money online," the proposal states.

Martin, who has criticized the state government for using the $126.3 million in stimulus funds to create a broadband network that solely benefits Citynet competitor Frontier Communications, said bus visitors also would be asked to fill out a survey. The answers would help inform government officials about access to high-speed Internet in West Virginia.

"We'll see how broadband is working and how it's not working," Martin said.

Citynet also proposed spending $5.4 million to set up nine "GigaPoP" facilities that would funnel data and connect to the national Internet "backbone" network in Pittsburgh and Columbus. The data facilities would increase the state's Internet transport capacity, and subsequently drive down costs for customers who use broadband service, Martin said.

"We can effectively lower the cost of Internet 20 times," he said. "People will be able to get cheap, affordable Internet."

Other proposals:

| Buckhannon-based Micrologic requested $1.8 million to upgrade its wireless-Internet tower network with new radios and other equipment. Micrologic President Emiel Butcher said the improvements would increase customers' download speeds significantly in up to eight counties.

"We'll directly impact your average Internet customer in the state," Butcher said Thursday.

| Wheeling-based StratusWave Communications has requested $875,000 to expand its existing 200-mile wireless broadband network.

| Foundation Telecommunications Inc. of Arkansas wants to spend $55,000 on a satellite broadband network. The company has a satellite network in Wyoming.

Given said some broadband project proposals that make the final cut might have to be bid out. She was putting together the project selection committee this week.

"We'll be following the appropriate purchasing rules in what we decide to do," she said.

West Virginia is using the bulk of the $126.3 million in stimulus funds to bring high-speed fiber-optic cable to more than 1,000 "community anchor institutions" -- schools, libraries, health centers, 911 centers, State Police barracks, county courthouses and state agencies.

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