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Frontier says Internet speed change could block service to 85K homes

By Eric Eyre, The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Frontier Communications plans to fight a plan to increase minimum acceptable Internet broadband speeds under West Virginia law, saying the change could stifle service to homes in rural areas.

By a 5-4 vote Friday, the state Broadband Deployment Council voted to propose legislation that would raise the state's minimum acceptable download speed to 6 megabits.

Frontier executive Dana Waldo said 85,000 households don't have broadband service in West Virginia. The download speed change would jeopardize their chances of getting high-speed Internet, he said.

"If we change the code, we put those households in the back of the line when they should be at the front of the line," said Waldo, a broadband council member who voted against the speed change Friday.

The council's legislation would allow the state to subsidize other telecommunications providers that want to use state funds to bring faster broadband service to areas where Frontier already makes high-speed Internet available, Waldo said. Frontier has spent tens of millions of dollars to bring broadband to 158,000 additional households in West Virginia since 2010, the company said.

"Through its action [Friday], the council, in effect, decided to use taxpayers' money to support projects to increase broadband speeds to areas that already have broadband access rather than support projects to serve areas with no broadband access," said Waldo, general manager of Frontier's operations in West Virginia. "I believe this decision runs counter to the original intent of the council's purpose."

The broadband council now distributes grant money for broadband projects in West Virginia's most rural areas. The redefined speed would allow the council to distribute money for projects throughout the entire state, except for urban areas, according to Frontier.

Council member Jim Martin said Frontier's objections to the proposed legislation were self-serving.

"Frontier is beholden to shareholders," said Martin, CEO of Bridgeport-based Citynet. "They're looking out for their bottom line. They're not looking out for the citizens of West Virginia."

Other supporters of the proposed bill said the increase in acceptable minimum Internet speeds was long overdue.

"There's no question speeds have to be raised," said Lee Fisher, a broadband council member who lives in Braxton County. "The citizens of West Virginia [in rural areas] should have access to the same speeds as those who live 200 miles away. To not vote to raise the speeds sends the wrong message."

Other board members said they support faster Internet speeds, but they predicted the change would drive broadband providers away from remote areas without high-speed Internet.

"They're going to ignore areas where there's no business case," said Gale Given, West Virginia state government's chief technology officer. "It's going to drive funding into areas that are already served."

Martin said the faster minimum speed would make more communities in West Virginia eligible for state and federal broadband funds.

"This helps us recognize there are still a lot of broadband challenges to address," Martin said. "This will ensure the citizens of West Virginia will receive reasonable levels of service and broadband speeds."

The proposed legislation also requires that acceptable broadband service won't have "latency" problems - disruptions or delays during Internet telephone service, online gaming and video conferencing applications such as Skype.

In December, the council awarded $2 million in grants to wireless telecommunications firms for projects that will bring Internet service to hundreds of households in West Virginia. The council has $1.6 million in leftover funds it hopes to distribute later this year.

The broadband council's legislation also will allow the group to distribute state grant money designed to encourage people to subscribe to broadband across the entire state.

Current law only permits the council to give "demand promotion grants" in remote areas that don't have high-speed Internet. Council members say it doesn't make sense to promote broadband in areas that don't have the service.

House Majority Leader Brent Boggs wrote a letter to the broadband council Friday, saying he would support their bill.

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