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$1.4M available for broadband projects

By Eric Eyre, The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- By the end of the year, the West Virginia Broadband Deployment Council plans to distribute $1.4 million in grants for projects that make high-speed Internet available to rural communities.

The council also will award money for projects that encourage West Virginians to sign up for broadband service. About 60 percent of West Virginia households subscribe to high-speed broadband where it's available -- one of the lowest Internet adoption rates in the nation.

The governor-appointed Broadband Deployment Council gave out $2 million last year to companies that provide wireless Internet to rural areas.

Telecommunication companies and nonprofit groups have until Sept. 13 to apply for this year's grants.

"The first round of grants are already bringing wireless broadband to West Virginia citizens and businesses," said Dan O'Hanlon, chairman of the Broadband Deployment Council. "In the second round, we expect to receive applications for infrastructure grants for unserved areas and demand promotion grant from throughout the state."

The council has asked companies and nonprofits seeking grants to work through West Virginia's 11 regional planning and development agencies.

"We hope requests for funds exceed our remaining grant funds to demonstrate to the Legislature the need for renewed funding," O'Hanlon said.

The council will have no money left over after it distributes the $1.4 million later this year.

The group has asked Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette to include $5 million for the broadband board in the department's upcoming budget. Burdette has said increasing his agency's budget would prove difficult in tight financial times.

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 has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to out-of-state consultants.

O'Hanlon predicted the Broadband Council would shut down if it doesn't receive additional state funding.

"It would be difficult to meet and talk like this if nothing come out of the talk," O'Hanlon said at Wednesday's council meeting in Charleston.

Council members said the group still has important work to do, 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.

O'Hanlon seemed hopeful Wednesday that state lawmakers would provide additional funding.

"I think we've spent our money wisely and well, and we are optimistic about our chances for renewed funding," he said.

The council plans to award its remaining $1.4 million at a Dec. 11 meeting.

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