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Amendment would direct broadband funds to high need areas

by Zack Harold, Capitol Reporter, The Charleston Daily Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Concerned about the quality of Internet access in Possum Hollow, state senators on Wednesday voted to amend a House bill meant to increase broadband speed in the state.

The original legislation, House Bill 2979, would have required West Virginia's minimum broadband Internet speeds match the Federal Communication Commission's standards.

But Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, introduced an amendment on the Senate floor Wednesday that also would require the state to direct future broadband grant money to areas with the lowest amount of broadband access.

Plymale said the amendment would ensure residents who currently do not have broadband Internet would get the service before the state Broadband Deployment Council chooses to upgrade service for residents already enjoying speedy Internet access.

Sen. Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, spoke in support of Plymale's amendment.

Carmichael, who works for Frontier Communications, said the problem with broadband access in West Virginia is not speed, but access. He said there are currently 85,000 homes in the state that currently do not receive broadband Internet, other than through satellite connections.

And while satellite Internet speeds may provide fast download times, Carmichael said latency is the biggest issue.

In simple terms, "latency" describes how fast or slow computers communicate with the Internet.

Even though a satellite Internet connection might allow users to download information quickly, it might take a long time for a home computer to send information back through the pipeline. This would make for a "high latency" connection.

Carmichael said hardwired broadband connections, such as those available through cable television providers or phone companies, provide low latency connections, where computers are able to communicate back and forth with the Internet at a very fast pace.

This becomes especially important when users try to play online video games or use Internet-based phone services like Vonage or Magic Jack.

Several senators opposed the amendment, however. A voice vote was too close to call, so Senate President Jeff Kessler had to count the votes by asking members to stand.

Speaking before the vote, Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, urged members to vote against Plymale's amendment.

Snyder, whose Government Organization Committee approved the bill earlier this week, said House Majority Leader Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, introduced the legislation and was happy with its existing language.

He said the state's Broadband Deployment Council, which oversees expansion of broadband Internet access in the state, also liked the bill as it arrived in the Senate.

"Everyone that deals with this thinks this is the way we should go," Snyder said.

By accepting Plymale's amendment, Snyder said the Senate would only bind the hands of the broadband council from making decisions about state Internet access issues. He said the council looks at many factors when deciding how to spend grant monies but Plymale's amendment would require them to look at only one factor - access -- before any other.

"I trust the Broadband Council ... to make those decision on into the future," he said.

Snyder said with satellite Internet now available, talking about access is a irrelevant.

"As we speak the entirety West Virginia is bathed in satellite signal at a capacity of five megabytes. So we're already surpassing that standard in the entire state, unless you're in a cave where you can't get signal," he said.

Sen. Clark Barnes, R-Randolph, stood to ask Plymale and Carmichael if the amendment would preclude the Broadband Council from bringing service to areas already served by satellite Internet.

"If we have 10 folks up in Possum Hollow that have no access to broadband access, would they receive priority over the thousand people who only have two megabytes of broadband access?" he said.

Carmichael and Plymale both said the bill would ensure Possum Hollow residents get broadband before upgrades were made elsewhere.

While Barnes was clearly using "Possum Hollow" as a hypothetical rural hamlet, there are at least four communities in West Virginia that bear the name, in Summers, Mercer, Berkeley and Pocahontas counties.

Senators are expected to vote on House Bill 2979 on Thursday. If it passes, the legislation must return to the House for members to approve amendments made in the Senate.

If the House doesn't approve the changes, the bill would be assigned to a joint House-Senate committee to work out a compromise.

If that happens, agreement on the legislation could come down to an 11th-hour deal. All bills that will pass this year must clear the House and Senate before midnight Saturday, the 60th day of the regular legislative session.

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