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Broadband development council criticized

Promotion projects denied funding

By Eric Eyre, The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Virginia Broadband Deployment Council's refusal to award grant money to projects that encourage rural residents to subscribe to high-speed Internet is a "profound disappointment" and shows a "lack of leadership," a Pendleton County nonprofit group said Thursday.

"If the council wasn't going to consider demand promotion projects, they should have had the courtesy to say so," said Douglas McConatha, executive director of Circleville-based Future Generations. "A lot of hard-working people wouldn't have wasted their time and money preparing these grant applications, and taxpayer money wouldn't have been wasted paying consultants to review and rank the applications."

Frontier Communications, which planned to partner with Future Generations, also criticized the council Thursday.

"It's regrettable the council's actions are depriving thousands of worthy West Virginians from having access to computers and Internet access," said Ken Arndt, Frontier's East Region president. "We are disappointed with the council's decision and hope it can find a way to fulfill its state-mandated mission by ultimately funding these demand projects."

Earlier this week, the Broadband Deployment Council voted to award $2.05 million to wireless Internet providers that plan to build towers and provide broadband service to new customers.

However, council members didn't award a dime to projects that promote broadband demand -- even though the governor-appointed board had an extra $1.7 million to distribute.

The council paid a Pennsylvania consulting group, L.R. Kimball, to score and rank project applications.

Future Generations requested more than $900,000 for four projects that would encourage people to sign up for broadband in Southern West Virginia.

Future Generations' proposals ranked highest among all applications. The consultant strongly recommended that the Broadband Deployment Council fund the Future Generations' projects.

In a split vote, the council rejected the recommendation, saying infrastructure projects -- fiber-optic broadband networks and wireless Internet towers -- should be funded first.

Some board members said it wouldn't make sense to fund broadband promotion projects in areas where high-speed Internet isn't available.

Council Chairman Dan O'Hanlon declined to comment Thursday.

The council has until Dec. 19 to distribute the $1.7 million in leftover funds, but no additional meetings have been scheduled for this month. The council could make grant money available again next year. Groups would have to re-apply for funds.

Future Generations leaders said state law requires the council to fund projects that tout broadband.

"Demand promotion is an essential complement to infrastructure projects," said LeeAnn Shreve, director of Future Generations Rural America. "West Virginians, especially poorer families with marginal incomes, have a difficult choice in whether or not to subscribe to broadband, and many are still without computers in the home."

A recent Federal Communications Commission report -- called "Reducing the Broadband Gap in West Virginia" -- ranks West Virginia 45th in the nation for the percentage of people who subscribe to high-speed Internet. The survey found that only 49 percent of West Virginians with broadband access sign up for the service.

"The council shifted away from a key tenet of the state code that established the council -- to stimulate broadband demand through public outreach and education," Arndt said. "The concept, which we support, makes sense, considering that West Virginia has one of the lowest broadband adoption rates in the nation."

With state grant money, Future Generations planned to offer discounted broadband service -- at a cost of $9.95 a month -- through Frontier to low-income families in rural areas. Some families also would have received free computers, along with "digital literacy" training at computer centers located at fire stations across the state.

"Poorer families need opportunities to learn about broadband and computers at a discounted rate so that they may judge for themselves the value and relevance of broadband in terms of family connections, education, knowledge, consumer choice and access to job opportunities," Shreve said. "In other words, broadband access is more than infrastructure -- [it's] about knowledge, skills and opportunities to learn."

Frontier said the company wouldn't receive grant money from the Future Generations project.

"We agreed to donate to the project by providing subsidized services to those who would benefit," Arndt said. "I want to be clear: We are not seeking any grant funds under the proposal. Rather, we are offering our support, worth about $1 million to a community-based initiative."

Other nonprofits -- including the Partnership of African American Churches, West Virginia University and Marshall University -- also submitted projects designed to increase consumer demand for broadband. Those projects, however, scored low, and the consultant didn't recommend that the council fund the proposals.

McConatha called the Broadband Council's vote to "table" demand promotion projects a "last-minute" decision that blindsided grant applicants. Council members had never previously discussed -- at least not publicly -- the possibility of only giving grant money to wireless tower and fiber projects.

"More than anything, this decision shows a lack of leadership on part of the council," McConatha said. "The decision of the West Virginia Broadband Deployment Council to not even consider the proposals to expand these [demand promotion] programs is a profound disappointment to everyone involved in this grass-roots effort."

In 2010, Future Generations received a $4 million federal stimulus grant to set up computer centers at 60 volunteer fire departments in West Virginia. The computers are available to the public at specified hours. The nonprofit also has provided training to more than 160 people who teach computer skills to rural residents and veterans.

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