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House passes bill to increase Internet speeds

By Eric Eyre, The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A bill designed to bring faster Internet service to rural communities in West Virginia cleared the House of Delegates Tuesday.

House members voted 88-11 to approve legislation (HB2979) that would raise the state's minimum acceptable broadband download speed to 6 megabits per second. The change allows telecommunication firms to apply for state funds to provide faster service across West Virginia.

West Virginia's minimum broadband speed would exceed federal standards. The Federal Communication Commission has suggested that every U.S. household have a 4-megabit Internet download speed by 2020.

"We want to be on the leading edge," said House Finance Chairman Harry Keith White, D-Mingo. "That's the direction I think we need to go."

State law now sets 200 kilobits per second as the minimum broadband speed, one of the slowest limits in the nation.

West Virginia Broadband Deployment Council members proposed the bill to redefine download speeds to expand the pool of applicants seeking funds for projects that increase high-speed Internet service in rural areas.

Higher speeds allow people to download web pages, music, videos and online games more quickly.

In December, the council distributed $2.05 million in funds for broadband projects, but held back another $2 million.

"If the state is going to invest in broadband infrastructure in the future, it must demand that there is an appropriate level of service that meets the true need of the public," said Jim Martin, a council member and CEO of Bridgeport-based Internet provider Citynet.

Frontier Communications and other Broadband Council members have argued that the faster speed requirement would drive broadband providers away from remote areas that have no high-speed Internet service at all.

Instead, the critics predict, telecommunications firms will turn their attention to bringing faster service to areas that already have broadband.

Frontier has reported that 85,000 households don't have broadband service in West Virginia.

Frontier also has said the legislation would allow the state to subsidize other telecommunications providers to bring faster service to areas where Frontier already makes high-speed Internet available.

Frontier has spent tens of millions of dollars to bring broadband to 158,000 additional households in West Virginia since 2010, the company has said.

Frontier would not comment on the House vote Tuesday.

The House bill also will allow the Broadband Deployment Council to distribute state grant money designed to encourage people to subscribe to broadband statewide.

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 market broadband in areas where it's not available.

Some House Republicans said the money should be spent to upgrade broadband networks -- not to push people to sign up for Internet service.

"They say we need to be on the leading edge," said House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, who voted against the bill. "To me, promotion is not building infrastructure and improving access."

The bill next goes to the Senate.

Also Tuesday, House members:

* Approved a bill (HB3043) that would expand the state's mine safety tax credit to include methane monitors.

"I want the state to do everything possible to ensure that the most accurate safety equipment is in our coal mines," said House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, who introduced the bill. "It is my hope that the expansion of this tax credit will encourage equipment manufacturers to produce the methane monitoring units our mining companies need in order to comply with our new, more rigid safety standards."

* Amended a bill (HB3157) that requires the state school board to look into ways to restore flexibility to county school boards. The amendment adds a provision that the state school board must also examine the increasing amount of reports and other paperwork principals and teachers must complete and submit to the state Department of Education. State lawmakers want the department to reduce school paperwork requirements.

* Passed legislation (HB2866) that allows gun owners to shoot weapons within 500 feet of their residence, provided there are no other homes located within the 500 feet.

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