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Snowshoe broadband plan gets $713K state grant

Panel rejects advice of its own consultants against project

By Eric Eyre, The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In a split vote, the West Virginia Broadband Deployment Council awarded a $713,000 grant Wednesday for a project that expands high-speed Internet to vacation homes and condos at Snowshoe Mountain resort, even though Frontier Communications already has plans to bring broadband service to the area.

An independent consultant paid by the Broadband Council recommended that the council not fund the Snowshoe project. The consultant ranked Citynet's broadband proposal for the ski area last among five "infrastructure" projects that solicited funding.

Broadband Deployment Council members overrode the consultant's report by a 5-3 vote.

"This is a high tourism attraction project," said Matt Ballard, who heads the Charleston Area Alliance's economic development group and represents "public citizens" on the Broadband Deployment Council. "[Snowshoe] is one of the hallmarks of our state."

Council members who voted against the project said the state shouldn't be subsidizing a wealthy resort community made up of expensive houses and condominiums that people use as second homes.

"Not everyone in our population can go ski and own a home at Snowshoe," said Elaine Harris, who sits on the council and lobbies for the Communications Workers of America. "I'm very concerned as a council member about the message we're sending to communities that have no [broadband] service."

Frontier already provides Internet service to about 25 percent of the Snowshoe Mountain area where Citynet proposes to expand service. Frontier also plans to bring broadband to 80 percent of homes at Snowshoe by the end of the year, the company said. Frontier already has secured federal money through the Connect America Fund for Snowshoe broadband expansion.

"Ultimately, it will be competing service," said Billy Jack Gregg, a Frontier representative. "What this council has done is subsidized competition for a private resort that can, in my opinion, fully afford whatever service they want."

Council members who voted for Citynet's project at Snowshoe said there's no guarantee Frontier will expand high-speed Internet service at the resort.

"We can't depend on 'could' or 'might,'" said Amy Shuler Goodwin, who serves on the council for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. "We need to continue to invest in and enhance our crown jewels [in West Virginia]. I think of it as a marketing opportunity."

For years, Snowshoe homeowners and resort guests have complained about poor or non-existent Internet service at the ski area.

"Time and time again, the experience they share with others back home is [that] Snowshoe is where Internet and cellphones come to die," said David Fleming, president of the Pocahontas County Commission, in a letter to the broadband council.

Frontier representatives said the company has heard the same complaints and plans to improve high-speed Internet service on the mountain.

"We understand the frustration of customers who haven't had adequate service up until now," Gregg said, "but help was on the way."

The Broadband Deployment Council had $1 million to distribute Wednesday. The remaining $287,000 in funds went to StratusWave, a company that plans to provide wireless Internet to homes in Wetzel, Doddridge and Tyler counties.

Council member Jeff Wise said the group should distribute money for projects that bring Internet to people's permanent homes for the first time -- not to vacation homes.

"I'd love to have high-speed Internet when I go to Snowshoe, too," he said.

Late Tuesday, Citynet CEO Jim Martin, who sits on the broadband council, sent an email to fellow council members, urging them to approve the Snowshoe project.

Martin, who owns a vacation home at Snowshoe, criticized the consultant's report that recommended the project not be funded.

He attached a 61-page "support document" to his email. The document included letters of support, a newspaper article and a complaint about Frontier's broadband service at Snowshoe that was filed with the West Virginia Public Service Commission.

"While some may suggest I'm biased, I do honestly believe Citynet's application is one of the best infrastructure projects that has ever been submitted to the Broadband Council," Martin wrote.

A council subcommittee evaluated project applications separately from the consultant. The subcommittee gave its highest rating to the Snowshoe project. However, panel members weren't given information about Frontier's expansion plans at the resort.

In 2011, the state Ethics Commission advised broadband council members to step aside from discussing and voting on grants if they had a financial interest.

On Wednesday, Martin made a motion to vote first on the subcommittee's recommendations that ranked Citynet's proposal No. 1 -- instead of the consultant's report that rated the company's project last.

"Because we do have limited funds, I think the order we vote on these grants is fairly important," Martin told council members.

The change improved Citynet's chances of receiving funding because the council would take up the Snowshoe project first, without exhausting grant funds on other projects.

Martin's motion, however, wasn't seconded. Martin recused himself from the meeting and left the room.

Ballard later made Martin's same motion, which the council approved.

Frontier executive Dana Waldo, who serves on the broadband council, voted against Citynet's Snowshoe project. Frontier competes against Citynet.

"If I'm excluded because I'm a competitor," Waldo said, "I might as well not be on this council, because Frontier serves 95 percent of the state."

Citynet plans to provide Internet service to about 1,500 homes at Snowshoe and invest $820,000 of it own money in the project.

The council's consulting firm spelled out specific reasons for rejecting Citynet's proposal.

"The beneficiary of this grant is limited to a private resort community," the report states. "The majority of this area appears to be served . . . . It is not the best investment of state funds."

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