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W.Va. broadband council to fold Dec. 31

By Eric Eyre, The Charleston Gazette

A governor-appointed council charged with expanding high-speed Internet in West Virginia will be disbanded at year’s end, after state lawmakers rejected the group’s request for additional funding.

The Broadband Deployment Council wanted $5 million to distribute for projects that bring high-speed broadband to rural communities.

"We didn’t get any funding," said Dan O’Hanlon, the council’s chairman. "In better times, we might have been given some additional money to do more successful projects to get broadband to everyone, but these are difficult budget times for the state."

The council recently canceled its June meeting.

"There’s nothing to do except report on [past] grants," O’Hanlon said. "We’ve sent all of our required reports to the Legislature. We’ll do the same thing this December, and then we’re done."

At then-Gov. Joe Manchin’s request, state lawmakers established the Broadband Deployment Council five years ago, setting aside $5 million for the group. Legislators have balked at providing additional funds over the years.

The group didn’t start distributing grants until 2013, after getting sidetracked with discussions about a $126.3 million federal stimulus project designed to bring fiber-optic cable to schools, libraries and other public facilities. The Legislative Auditor’s office has issued two scathing reports about the statewide project, citing waste and mismanagement.

Broadband Deployment Council members wanted a say in the project, but they’ve been shut out. A team of state officials oversaw the broadband expansion.

Over the past two years, the council has distributed about $3.7 million in grants, mostly for wireless Internet projects in rural areas.

"I’m very proud of the work that’s been done by the Broadband Council," O’Hanlon said. "I believe we have shown some very successful models for bringing wireless broadband to areas where it costs too much to bring fiber [cable]."

The council spent additional funds to hire a Pennsylvania consulting firm that reviewed grant applications and created an online map of broadband service in West Virginia.

The Broadband Council has about $800,000 in leftover funds, money it plans to spend on project audits and reports through the end of the year.

However, there’s a chance council members might decide to award additional grants for broadband projects later this year.

"It may well be, if we’re going to be sunsetted in December, we’ll have a last round of grants and give away whatever’s left," O’Hanlon said.

The Broadband Council next meets July 24 in Pocahontas County. The same day, council members also plan to attend a broadband conference at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank. The council has never previously held a meeting outside Charleston.

No additional meetings have been scheduled.

Broadband Council member Matt Ballard said high-speed Internet remains important in bolstering West Virginia’s economy.

"We still have much work to do to stay competitive with broadband services in the core business areas of the state," said Ballard, president of the Charleston Area Alliance economic development group. "Whether it’s the governor’s Broadband Council or some other state agency or entity, the state will always need to be involved and pushing for, encouraging and facilitating additional broadband infrastructure and development."

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