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11/18/2010
Scope of Broadband Project Clarified

by George Hohmann, The Charleston Daily Mail. (11/18/2010)

It has become clear that a $126 million federal stimulus grant to the state is not specifically designed to make broadband available to 700,000 residents and 100,000 businesses, but is instead aimed at connecting about 1,500 institutions such as libraries and schools.

The clarification came Wednesday during a meeting of the West Virginia Broadband Council when Lee Fisher, a member from Braxton County who represents rural communities, mentioned that the 700,000 figure continues to be used.

State Commerce Department Secretary Kelley Goes, who chairs the council, said the state's federal grant application talks about connecting critical community anchor tenants.

"We're only doing critical access facilities," she said.

Fisher replied, "But that 700,000 number is still being used by public officials."

Goes said, "Not by this council. I think it's been in some press releases."

Indeed, the state's grant application talks about bringing broadband to about 1,500 institutions such as libraries, schools and government offices.

But a fact sheet posted on the National Telecommunications and Information Administration's website says the project "intends to spur affordable broadband service impacting more than 700,000 households, 110,000 businesses, and 1,500 anchor institutions, by allowing local Internet service providers to connect to the project's open network."

The U.S. Department of Commerce's Feb. 18 press release announcing the grant said the project would "connect more than 1,000 community anchor institutions and equip 60 West Virginia fire and emergency rescue stations with more computers and high-speed Internet."

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., was instrumental in getting federal stimulus money allocated for broadband projects. His Feb. 18 press release contained a background paragraph about the state program.

It said the project would provide every K-12 school in the state with a high-speed Internet connection; upgrade Internet access significantly in an estimated 985 facilities including libraries, jails, telemedicine sites and courthouses; and "spur affordable broadband service for more than 700,000 households and 110,000 businesses in the state."

A Feb. 18 press release by then-Gov. Joe Manchin said, "The project intends to spur affordable broadband service that would affect more than 700,000 households, 110,000 businesses and 1,500 anchor institutions by allowing local Internet service providers to connect to the project's open network."

Fisher, the Broadband Council member, said, "I think the council should say to these officials that the quote is not correct; this grant will not provide that."

The discussion shifted to other topics but Citynet President and CEO Jim Martin again brought up the state's project.

Martin has charged that the state's project isn't about an open network or data superhighways, "it's about covering the state's capital cost to extend its network into state agencies. At the end of the day there's no reduction in prices to those agencies, no true benefit being provided."

Martin has repeatedly said Frontier Communications Corp., the state's telecommunications provider, will be the only beneficiary. Frontier has said it will abide by all of the federal requirements and the state's contract to fulfill the federal agency's goals.

At Wednesday's meeting Martin said, "The state is representing in their summary the project will serve 700,000 households and 100,000 businesses. Now we're starting to hear that was just a representation. I think it's time the council start questioning what's going on with this.

"I believe this is about enhancing Frontier's network," he said. "If we're going to give Frontier all of this money, who is ever going to be able to compete for state business? Without competition we will never see true broadband in this state.

"I want everyone in this room to know there are some serious concerns," Martin said. "If the council won't allow us to talk, we'll do what we have to do. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Everyone else is doing this right; we're the exact opposite of everybody. I'd like to have some open discussion of this. If I'm wrong, prove me wrong."

Martin asked for permission to talk about his concerns at the council's Dec. 15 meeting. After discussion, the council agreed to give Citynet and Frontier 20 minutes each for presentations in December.

The state's federal grant is for $126.3 million. The state must provide a $33.5 million match, for a total of $159.8 million. If the state uses the money to make 1,500 connections, it would work out to $106,533 per connection.

The state contends other providers could hook up residents and businesses along the connection routes. Citynet's Martin contends Frontier's rates will be too high.

Contact writer George Hohmann at business@dailymail.com or 304-348-4836.

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