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W.Va. lawmakers want to see broadband maps

by Dave Boucher, Daily Mail Capitol Reporter

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- State lawmakers believe Frontier Communications or the state team in charge of implementing a heavily scrutinized massive federal grant won't disclose detailed maps that could show whether public money was spent efficiently.

"I think we're running into a brick wall that's being put up," said Delegate Nancy Guthrie, D-Kanawha, Monday afternoon during a meeting of the joint Committee on Technology.

The state's chief technology officer denied the claim, and Frontier officials issued a memo "to address some of the myths that have surrounded the project."

Committee members want to see detailed engineering maps of the fiber Frontier built with the $42 million it received from the $126.2 million Broadband Technology Opportunities Program grant.

Lawmakers still haven't seen the maps, Guthrie said. She wants Frontier or the state Grant Implementation Team called before a committee with the power to force someone to turn over the maps.

"This is a legislative committee that's duly sworn to follow the money," Guthrie said after the meeting.

"We're just not getting answers, and it's public money."

Guthrie questioned state Chief Technology Officer Gale Given about the maps during the meeting. Given, who is also on the grant implementation team, said there are a "slew" of maps that show where wires are located.

"I don't think we're talking about the same thing," said Committee Co-Chairman Sen. Mike Green, D-Raleigh.

Green and Guthrie said after the meeting the available maps aren't detailed enough. More detail could provide answers to several questions, including how many miles of fiber were actually constructed, Guthrie said.

The state received the federal funding in 2010 to increase the availability of its high speed Internet. Frontier was awarded the contract and charged with providing broadband access to hundreds of "Community Anchor Institutions" likes schools, libraries and municipal facilities.

That included connecting the institutions to a larger broadband network with fiber and installing routers.

The state and Frontier have come under fire numerous times during the project.

In February the Legislative Auditor's Office determined the state spent about $15 million too much on routers that far exceeded the capacity needed at their particular locations.

In September the auditor also determined the state sidestepped purchasing laws when it spent roughly $38 million in federal funds on communications towers.

Most recently, the head of communications company Citynet leveled a flurry of allegations against Frontier. Citynet CEO Jim Martin appeared before the committee Monday. Pointing to costs and the scope of the project, he called on the state to conduct a complete audit to determine how many miles of fiber Frontier actually built.

"We already had Router-gate. We had Tower-gate. We don't need Fiber-gate," Martin said, referencing the program issues included in the auditor's reports.

"Lets get in front of this thing now."

Some of the problems center on the per-mile cost of fiber built for the project. In the early stages of the project Frontier estimated it would build 900 miles of fiber at an expected cost of $42 million, Given told the committee.

In order to not build fiber where fiber already existed, she said Frontier eventually built 675 miles of fiber. The entire project still cost the same though, according to information from Frontier provided by company spokesman Dan Page.

Given said the state estimated spending about $47,000 per mile and the cost came in at about $57,000 per mile.

"We're not double (the anticipated cost), we were about 20 percent off," Given said.

On the surface the project comes out to about $62,000 per mile, according to the Frontier document. That total is misleading, Frontier and Given argued.

The document states additional work at the institutions led to an unexpected $2.4 million in extra costs. Additional "auditing and legal requirements" added another $500,000. Frontier argues the "mountainous terrain" on the 85-mile stretch of fiber built to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Greenbank also inflated costs substantially, although the document doesn't include an exact dollar amount.

Building the fiber link between the observatory and West Virginia University in Morgantown was always part of the project, according to a letter sent earlier this year to lawmakers from Given, Homeland Security Director Jimmy Gianato and Rob Alsop, then chief of staff to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

Verizon, later purchased by Frontier, developed a cost-per-site estimate for the fiber deployment component of the project, according to the letter.

Frontier also says the grant required the company to pay "prevailing wage," an average hourly payment based upon wages in the private sector in a particular area. The requirement increased labor costs by about $7.5 million, according to Frontier.

Given told the committee she assumed prevailing wage costs were included in the initial estimate, but total project estimates frequently change.

"You don't know until you get out there exactly what you're going to find," Given said.

The per-mile cost is still far too high, Martin argued. He told the committee the average cost should be about $30,000 per mile, and said other local communications companies agree.

After the meeting, he said some of the fiber included in the total mileage is coiled at the locations and not in use.

That's true but misleading, Frontier argues in the document.

Per "industry standard," Frontier included 100 feet of fiber maintenance coil for every mile of fiber constructed, according to the document. There's a total of about 12 miles of maintenance fiber included in the total 675 miles of fiber built for the project, according to the document.

After the meeting Page said Frontier doesn't determine cost on a per-mile basis, so those miles don't cost the same as building the other 663 miles of fiber.

"There isn't 12 miles times $60,000 hanging up there on that pole," Page said, referencing the per mile cost included in the Frontier letter.

Martin and Frontier head Dana Waldo have feuded publicly about the project. Waldo stormed out of a Broadband Deployment Council meeting last week after accusing Martin of mischaracterizing Frontier actions on the project, according to the Charleston Gazette.

Waldo did not attend Monday's meeting. Guthrie said he had been asked to attend and "that's not a light request."

Page said Waldo had a previous commitment, and other Frontier officials were in attendance and ready to talk to the committee.

Green and Delegate Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, are co-chairmen of the committee. Both said they thought lawmakers had not received the maps they've requested.

They planned to speak with House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, and Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, this week about requiring Frontier and someone from the state to appear before a committee that can compel testimony.

It's unclear if any interim committee has that power, Boggs said after the meeting. That means the hearing might have to wait until the start of the 2014 legislative session in January.


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