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Lawmakers hear more broadband grant details

By Ann Ali, Senior Political Reporter, The State Journal

Gale Given, the state's chief technology officer, has had a lot of explaining to do lately.

Given had penned a 16-point response to questions lawmakers posed during previous interim committee meetings about the state's broadband expansion efforts.

During the Jan. 7 meeting of the joint committee on technology, Given briefed the handful of legislators present on West Virginia's use of Broadband Technology Opportunity, or BTOP, grants.

Given said the purpose of the BTOP program is generally to expand broadband access to unserved and underserved areas of the country.

Given said the program, which received criticism from local media and along the November campaign trail, has been misunderstood because there are four parts to the grant.

The first part is the deployment of fiber throughout West Virginia, and Given said that was the part the purchase and distribution of new routers are associated with; the second part is the expansion of microwave network; the third was installing fiber from the Green Bank Telescope to West Virginia University; and the fourth part of the project is expansion at Webnet.

Given said the state originally estimated that 900 miles of fiber would be deployed throughout the state, but it ended up being about 600 miles.

She said several locations that had been chosen already had fiber, so they did not duplicate services. The original plans also indicated 1,064 community institutions would receive an Internet router along with a fiber connection, but she said it turned out many locations already had fiber. She also explained that when the state purchased its routers, they were granted 100 free routers, so they had to find an additional 100 sites, and they are still deciding on locations for about 30 of those routers.

"I think there is a misconception that we are putting these in locations without fiber, and that is not the case," Given said.

Given said the kindergarten through 12th grade schools that have received the routers have done a "great job" utilizing their routers because they have a "very robust IT organization," but other entities that have received routers will need more coordination.

Given said several libraries have needed changes so that the data circuits are available, and that should be in place this month.

"They will pay the same amount for an increased bandwidth circuit," Given said. "They're going from one meg to three megs at the same price."

She said all entities that gets the router, if they are not already using the larger capacity circuit, will need to upgrade to make full use of it. She said she has also seen a few community colleges move their telephone services to a voice over IP service so they no longer have to pay a telephone company for service, and then use those savings to purchase the larger circuits the routers require.

Given said every organization had a point of contact that knew a router was headed its way, and she did not know of anyone who didn't have the budget for a router and couldn't use it. She said a few entities indicated that they did not want to upgrade to a fiber network, but no one said they couldn't use the router because they couldn't afford it.

Lawmakers had asked Given in their 15-question list why the Cisco 3945 routers were not "right-sized for the areas that they were to be installed."

Given's answer in the letter is that the routers were right sized.

"The team determined that capacity should be provided to permit these (Community Anchor Institutions) to deploy the applications that were required to meet future needs, not their current needs," Given wrote. "It would be a mistake to determine in advance that entities with low bandwidth requirements today will not have high bandwidth requirements in the future.

"In fact, the purpose of the grant is to stimulate availability and utilization. To have shortchanged our smaller, more rural areas would have gone against the entire intent of the program."

As for the microwave network, Given said the inter-operable microwave network that first responders use has been enhanced and enlarged, and nearly 90 percent of the state is now covered.

Given said many state residents would have been shocked to realize that the Green Bank Telescope received astronomical data that was loaded onto a hard drive, put in the back of a truck, and driven to WVU. The fiber route between Green Bank and WVU will allow that information to be available immediately.

And Webnet will help provide discounts on Internet services to state agencies, Given said, and it is being phased in from December through June.

Given explained to lawmakers that existing, open state contracts were used as part of the BTOP grant application because submitted projects had to be "shovel ready," and she said in order to move quickly, they used existing state contracts.

She said Verizon won the bid on the routers, and at least two companies bid on the specific requirements for the routers, but Frontier placed the fiber, and once it's all in place, the organizations can use their own carriers to provide Internet service.

Jimmy Gianato, director of homeland security in West Virginia, also spoke to lawmakers. He said he became involved with the broadband project because of the public safety component of the grant.

He said he went to New Orleans in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina had hit to examine how the networks failed the first responders. He said then-Gov. Joe Manchin asked him to look at communications in the state.

Gianato said he worked with the Legislature over the past several years to find funding and expand the infrastructure. In 2012, which included the June derecho storm and superstorm Sandy, it has been a "tremendous asset."

"We have done everything the grant said we would do," Gianato said. "If not for the June derecho and the hurricane, we would most likely have everything done by this month."

Members of the committee will continue to look into the program during the February interim meetings.

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