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As broadband council disbands, Internet in W.Va. remains poor

By Eric Eyre, The Charleston Gazette

West Virginia’s only state-sponsored group that aims to expand high-speed Internet is set to disband on Dec. 31, but state lawmakers say much work remains to be done to improve broadband service across the state.

At a joint House-Senate committee meeting Monday, legislators said they continue to field numerous complaints from constituents about Internet access and slow download speeds.

"Internet access and speed is close to taking over first place, next to roads, for the number of complaints in the counties I represent," said Delegate Randy Smith, R-Preston. "It’s a huge problem."

Next month, the 15-member West Virginia Broadband Deployment Council will shut its doors after a five-year run. Over the years, the governor-appointed council has distributed $5 million for Internet expansion projects in West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle, and at Snowshoe Mountain Resort. State lawmakers have declined to give the council additional funding.

At Monday’s interim meeting, Delegate Jeff Eldridge, D-Lincoln, said his county was "terrible for broadband." Eldridge asked broadband council Chairman Dan O’Hanlon whether the group had any way to fund additional high-speed Internet projects.

"We’re done," O’Hanlon said. "We’re out of business. It’s too late to do any more grants."

Smith said broadband customers in Preston and Tucker counties complain that they pay for high-speed Internet, but receive anything but.

"These people are getting charged for high-speed Internet, and some of them are getting dial-up [extremely slow] speed," Smith said.

O’Hanlon said he refers complaints about false advertising to Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s Consumer Protection Division, which handles disputes between customers and Internet providers.

"Evidently, it’s very ineffective," Smith said. "I represent two rural areas, and [slow speed] is a huge problem. Sometimes, it takes me a whole evening to get an email sent out."

Smith suggested the state establish a program that would foster competition among Internet providers. Such a program would drive down prices and improve service, Smith said.

Frontier Communications, West Virginia’s largest Internet provider, is typically the only company that offers broadband service in the state’s most rural areas. Frontier’s competitors seldom operate in rural markets because it’s too expensive to provide service and make a profit in remote areas.

"Basically, in West Virginia, we’re held hostage by Frontier," Smith said. "They’re the only game in town. I understand businesses need to make a profit, but it would be better if we could create some competition."

O’Hanlon said there’s little regulation of broadband service in West Virginia and across the United States.

"So, if you’re not satisfied with your service...?" Smith asked.

"...There’s no place to go," O’Hanlon answered.

O’Hanlon noted that the Broadband Deployment Council was investigating Internet speeds in West Virginia. The council spent thousands of dollars to collect Internet speed data from a private firm.

"The only state group that was looking into that was the Broadband Deployment Council, and it’s out of business in six weeks," O’Hanlon said.

To which Smith responded: "It seems to me, we need to get them back in business."

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