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06/08/2010
Statewide Broadband Project About to Kick Off

By Kate Long, The Charleston Gazette, (6/8/2010)

Within weeks, the first West Virginia county will be wired with fiber optic cable for the new statewide broadband network, Commerce Secretary Kelly Goes said Tuesday.

"After we get the system working smoothly in that first county, we're going to wire everything that needs it in every county, statewide," said Goes, who declined to identify the first county.

In March, West Virginia was awarded $126 million in federal stimulus funds to create a statewide high-speed broadband network for all public schools, libraries, health-care facilities and fire and police departments.

"I'm so excited about this network and what I think is going to happen for West Virginia because of it," Goes said. "This is a hugely powerful tool."

The network will make it possible for a class of West Virginia schoolchildren to teleconference with a class of children in other countries, she said. It will be possible for rural patients to be examined via teleconference by a physician 90 miles away. Doctors in remote counties will be able to consult specialists in urban areas. Local police will tap into high-speed forensic information.

"Without the stimulus funding, we would never have been able to afford this," said Kyle Schafer, chief technology officer for the project.

The state will intentionally build more broadband capacity than the schools, libraries, police and fire departments can use, he said. After the towers are built, companies such as Sprint, AT&T and Suddenlink can lease space on them, Goes said.

"If we can use the broadband stimulus dollars to overbuild fiber optic capacity in the communities, then that extra capacity can be expanded to the community in the future," Schafer said. "That's the intent. It will be a real selling point for new businesses and new residents who want to work from home."

"Any time you add infrastructure that transports data, you're allowing West Virginia to reach out to the world," Goes said. "In today's world, the ability to move data is as necessary as electricity, water and sewer - no question."

The administration plans to spend about $40 million of the stimulus money to add 12 broadband towers to the state's existing 83 towers, she said.

Another $40 million will pay Verizon Business Services to lay fiber-optic cable to 1,064 public facilities and provide access to global networks. Verizon's $40 million will be channeled through an open-ended broadband contract the company has held since 2007, Goes said.

After the system is tested in one county, Goes said, "we're going to place one big order. This way, the company can create better infrastructure, because our requests will be coordinated, not piecemeal.

"It is our hope that this infrastructure will help lower the prohibitively expensive cost" of high-capacity broadband, she said.

The Verizon contract will be expanded while another Verizon subsidiary, Verizon West Virginia, is selling its landline network to Frontier Communications. The state Public Service Commission recently gave final permission for the sale.

Frontier Communications is likely to do much of the fiber optic work, Goes said. "I don't know what agreement those two entities will come to, but from the state's point of view, whatever the agreement is, the state still has the contract."

The contract will not be put out for bid, Goes said, because Verizon has wired state facilities for broadband under that contract for three years, she said. "We're not creating anything new," she said. "The main difference is that, now, instead of putting in one order at a time, we can put in a whole bunch. We won't to have to scrounge for funds.

"When we applied, we attached a copy of the [Verizon] contract to our application, so we have always known we were going to do it this way, and the federal government has always known," she said.

The administration is asking Verizon to lower their fees, she said. "We're doing more business with them and bringing them more customers," she said. "We're making it easier for them to put it out in one fell swoop, and we would expect them to re-evaluate and give us better pricing.

"We have a very tight deadline to get this substantially done within 24 months," she said. "We're on track to do that."

The engineering and design of the 12 new towers is already underway, said Jimmy Gianato, state director of homeland security and emergency management. "We will order the equipment over the winter, then construction will start."

West Virginia started building the network years before stimulus money became available, Goes said. "In 2007, Governor Manchin said the state would be wired, and we started broadband mapping and laying groundwork.

"Then the stimulus came along, and our work paid off. We were the only statewide network that was funded. We got every penny we asked for."

Reach Kate Long at katelong@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1798.

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