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12/01/2010
Federal Agency Reaffirms Broadband Project Support

by George Hohmann, The Charleston Daily Mail, (12/01/10)

The federal agency that oversees the $126 million broadband grant to West Virginia has reaffirmed its support of the state's project, a development hailed by acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

In a Nov. 30 letter Anthony Wilhelm, the director of the U.S. Department of Commerce's broadband program, told Jim Pitrolo Jr., former Gov. Joe Manchin's legislative director, "We look forward to continuing to work with you to implement your project..."

In a five-page letter dated Nov. 29, Lawrence Strickling, the U.S. Department of Commerce's assistant secretary for communications, rejected every objection to the program raised by Jim Martin, the president and chief executive officer of Citynet.

Martin has said, "The state represented it would build a 'middle-mile' network reaching 700,000 homes and 100,000 businesses, and it would be this great new superhighway and do all the things the federal government is seeking. But afterward, Citynet and others got to look and it looks like it is a windfall for Frontier Communications only."

Strickling said Martin had mischaracterized the project's intent.

"The EOWV (Executive Office of West Virginia) application did not propose to serve homes and businesses directly," Strickling said. "Instead, the application proposed to directly connect over 1,000 anchor institutions, such as schools and public safety agencies."

Strickling went on to tell Martin, "In your correspondence you make a variety of other assertions that likewise seem to misunderstand our rules and the EOWV application."

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, also known as the NTIA, "reviewed West Virginia applications using the same standards and following the same processes that applied to all other proposals," Strickling said.

"With respect to your specific criticisms of the project, many appear to ignore the benefits described above and seem largely based on a misunderstanding of the EOWV's application and our rules," Strickling said.

Regarding the affordability of the services to be offered over the facilities built with the state grant, Strickling wrote that "we believe NTIA should defer to the opinions of the West Virginia Governor and its Secretary of Commerce that funding of this project will relieve the state and state agencies of economic burdens. . ."

"We understand that the rates contained in West Virginia's underlying contract with Frontier were the product of a standard state procurement process and your letter does not seem to contradict that fact, although I recognize you might have preferred a different result," Strickling wrote. "In addition, we are advised that the parties to the contract are in the process of negotiating lower rates."

Tomblin said in a prepared statement, "The broadband grant has been thoroughly reviewed and the latest response by the NTIA acknowledging the state's compliance allows us to continue to move forward.

"Broadband will continue to be a significant portion of expanding the state's infrastructure and I am confident that state officials will continue to work diligently to ensure that this broadband project is carried out in accordance with all grant requirements."

Citynet said it had received a letter from the NTIA, is reviewing it, and would have a formal response within 48 hours.

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

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