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House buckling to Frontier, Republican delegate alleges

By Eric Eyre, The Charleston Gazette

A Republican lawmaker is accusing the GOP-controlled House of Delegates leadership of refusing to run any bills designed to improve high-speed Internet service because the legislation could harm Frontier Communications.

In a press release posted to his Facebook page, Delegate Randy Smith, R-Preston, said House GOP leadership told him last Friday that two broadband-related bills that Smith has introduced would "go nowhere because it would hurt Frontier."

"Frontier has its hands in the state Capitol," Smith said in the release. "The company knows how to play hardball with the legislative process."

This week, Smith wouldn’t name the GOP House leader who talked to him about the House not taking up bills that Frontier opposes, but said it wasn’t House Speaker Tim Armstead.

"It was one individual," Smith said. "He said leadership wouldn’t support this because they feel like it’s targeting Frontier. If it comes to the point I have to, I’ll give names. I know you’re wanting names."

House Majority Leader Daryl Cowles, R-Berkeley, said he recently spoke to Smith about the high-speed Internet bills. Cowles said House Republicans have no "blanket position" against bills that Frontier opposes.

"There’s no policy by leadership that these bills should move or shouldn’t move based on who’s supporting them or who doesn’t," Cowles said. "It sounds like Randy is frustrated. He, like many out there, are frustrated by their Internet speeds and service."

One of Smith’s bills (HB2551), which is co-sponsored by 10 GOP delegates, would prohibit Internet providers from advertising broadband service as "high-speed Internet" unless the company offered a download speed of 10 megabits per second or higher.

The other bill (HB2552) would allow Internet customers to take billing disputes to Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s office, if the state Public Service Commission refuses to review their complaints.

"I was told Friday that there’s no way those bills were going to run," Smith said.

Smith’s bills don’t single out Frontier, but as West Virginia’s largest Internet provider, the company would stand to lose the most if state lawmakers passed the legislation.

In many rural communities in West Virginia, Frontier is the only Internet provider. Cable companies, which also sell Internet service, typically shun rural areas because it’s difficult to make a profit in those communities.

"We’re the only provider that chooses to serve much of rural West Virginia, and we see the legislation as having a negative effect on further development of rural broadband services," said Frontier spokesman Dan Page.

In recent years, Frontier has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to bring Internet service to rural households in West Virginia. But the company doesn’t have the technology to offer its fastest Internet speeds in those areas.

"Frontier has been trying to spend money to upgrade service, but it hasn’t been easy for those guys," Cowles said. "We’re trying to expand broadband and improve the speeds everywhere we can. We try to nudge Frontier when we can, push them when we can, while we respect their investment."

Smith’s bill doesn’t require Frontier and its competitors to offer the 10-megabit download speed.

"They could still sell the slower service, but they couldn’t advertise it as high-speed Internet," Smith said. "Companies are advertising high-speed Internet, but not providing it. I don’t want to single out Frontier, but they’re the biggest culprit because that’s all we can get."

Last year, Frontier customers filed a class-action lawsuit against the company, alleging Frontier wasn’t providing Internet speeds as advertised. Frontier has asked a judge to dismiss the suit.

In Preston County, Frontier’s Internet speeds are "laughable," Smith said.

"No wonder they’re called Frontier," Smith said in his press release. "Those are the kinds of speeds you’d expect on the American frontier in the 17th century."

Smith said he plans to talk to Armstead about his stalled bills.

"I may be alienated by my party in the end, but right is right, and wrong is wrong," Smith said. "[Internet companies] ought to be held accountable for what they’re providing."

At least three House members — two Republicans and one Democrat — work for Frontier. However, Smith and Cowles said those lawmakers haven’t tried to scuttle Smith’s bills. House leaders aren’t kowtowing to Frontier, Cowles said.

"It’s about the merits of the issue," Cowles said. "There’s some merit to that issue, but I don’t know if his bills will run."


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