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State broadband availability sparse along county borders

By Eric Eyre, The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- If high-speed Internet service isn't available in your West Virginia community, chances are you live along the border of two rural counties, the state Broadband Deployment Council learned Wednesday.

Frontier Communications recently reported that about 85,000 households in West Virginia don't have broadband service. Many of those homes are typically located far away from county seats, company officials said.

"Looking at the periphery of every county, especially rural counties, that's where you'll see that first," said Billy Jack Gregg, a Frontier consultant.

The Broadband Deployment Council plans to distribute $1.7 million later this year to companies that plan to expand broadband service to rural communities.

State lawmakers passed a bill last week that requires the council to give priority to projects that bring broadband to homes without service – before funding projects that increase existing customers' Internet speeds.

At a meeting Wednesday, Broadband Council members called on Frontier to disclose specific locations that don't now have high-speed Internet service.

Dana Waldo, who heads Frontier's West Virginia operations, said the company wouldn't likely be able to identify each of the 85,000 households without broadband. But Waldo said Frontier would turn over as much information as possible about specific neighborhoods without high-speed Internet service.

"That's highly likely able to be done," Waldo said.

Council Chairman Dan O'Hanlon said the council must move swiftly to distribute the $1.7 million so the group can request additional funds from the Legislature for next year's grant cycle.

The Legislature established the Broadband Council four years ago, but the group didn't start awarding grants -- $2 million for seven projects that served 5,000 homes -- until December. The council hopes to accept applications and distribute the remaining funds before November, O'Hanlon said.

"I'm trying to be aggressive and push hard," he said.

Several council members said the board should give priority to broadband projects sponsored by companies that agree to chip in private monies.

"They need to have some skin in the game," said Gale Given, West Virginia's chief technology officer.

Rob Alsop, chief of staff for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's administration, said the state School Building Authority, which distributes money for school construction, gives greater weight to projects that include local school board funds.

"It helps to spread our dollars further," said Alsop, who serves on the Broadband Council.

The new broadband legislation, which Tomblin is expected to sign into law, also allows the council to distribute funds statewide for broadband marketing projects that encourage people to subscribe to high-speed Internet service.

In some West Virginia rural communities where broadband is available, only 30 percent of people sign up for the service, Waldo said.

Other council members said they support broadband "demand promotion" projects, but they believe the council should first distribute grants to companies that plan to build high-speed Internet networks.

Said council member Jim Martin, "The Legislature is pretty clear they want us to get the infrastructure in place before we do demand promotion."

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