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Broadband panel's death knell could be just a click away

Governor-appointed group's request for more tax money met with cool reception
By Eric Eyre, The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A governor-appointed group charged with expanding high-speed Internet in West Virginia could be disbanded next year unless it secures additional funding.

The West Virginia Broadband Deployment Council plans to exhaust its remaining funds -- about $2 million -- later this year for projects that bring high-speed broadband to rural communities.

On Wednesday, council members voted unanimously to ask Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette to include $5 million for the broadband board in the department's upcoming budget.

"If we leave this to the whims of the Legislature in securing funds, there's a chance we might not get any money," said Lee Fisher, a council member. "I just think the council needs some kind of commitment from the state with money behind it." After Wednesday's vote, Burdette said Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin would have the final say on his agency's budget. Burdette predicted that increasing the department's budget by $5 million would prove difficult in tight financial times. "That would be an improvement package that would have to be approved by the governor before it would be submitted in any budget," Burdette said. "Of course, that's contingent on there being $5 million to include."

At former Gov. Joe Manchin's request, state lawmakers established the Broadband Deployment Council and set aside $5 million for the group five years ago. Legislators have balked at providing additional funds.

The council didn't start distributing grant funds -- about $1.7 million -- until last year. The group previously spent funds to hire a Pennsylvania consulting firm that created an online map of broadband service in West Virginia.

Some Broadband Deployment Council members questioned whether the state commerce department could increase its budget by $5 million. They suggested the council first gauge legislative support. State lawmakers serve on the council, but they seldom attend meetings.

Fisher warned that the council could become a "lame duck" board after it distributes grant money and empties its accounts later this year. "We need a commitment to go forward," he said.

Council member Jim Martin said the group has important work on its plate, including plans to increase Internet speeds for homes and businesses across West Virginia. The state's average broadband speed is at least four times slower than the national average, he said.

"It's important for us to find sources of funding," said Martin, president of Citynet, a telecommunications firm headquartered in Bridgeport. "We need to at least start the ball rolling. What harm is there in asking?"

Also at Wednesday's meeting at the state Capitol:

• Fisher said West Virginians in rural areas continue to complain about broadband service. The council received 17 complaint letters last month, he said.

He said some state residents don't understand why West Virginia is using $126.3 million in stimulus funds to bring high-speed fiber cable to "community anchor institutions" - schools, libraries, jails, health centers, state agencies, 911 centers, county courthouses and other government buildings.

Fisher said people raising the complaints believe the state should find ways to provide broadband service to homes and businesses first.

"I sense a lot of bitterness going on in these unserved areas," he said. "There's bitterness about how that money was spent."

The council, on advice from former Attorney General Darrell McGraw's office, has played no role in the $126.3 million project. A group of state officials, including Homeland Security Director Jimmy Gianato, is overseeing the broadband expansion project.

Council members voted unanimously to adopt a form letter that the board will send to people who complain about broadband service. The letter suggests that residents contact local Internet providers about bringing broadband to their neighborhoods.

"[People with complaints] don't understand the council doesn't have the legal authority to solve their problems," Fisher said.

• Council members voted to ask Internet providers to report the download speeds they advertise in communities they serve. The speeds will be used to update the state's online map of broadband service.

• Fisher, who represents the general public on the board, announced he's resigning effective July 31. Fisher said he's moving from Braxton County to Ohio to help care for his wife's aging parents. Fisher has been one of the board's most active members and serves on several council subcommittees.

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