West Virginia House Declines to Take Up State Broadband Bills

The project was designed to link rural communities with high-speed fiber. but the House stuck the bill in its Political Subdivisions Committee, where it has languished for weeks and is expected to stay while the session ends.

by Eric Eyre, The Charleston Gazette, W.Va. / March 11, 2016
Sen. Chris Walters of Putnam, W.Va., blames the state's steep topography for the lack of Internet infrastructure in rural areas. And that, he said, is why state government should get involved. Flickr/Mark Plummer

(TNS) -- For rural West Virginians who don’t have access to high-speed Internet — or have slow and unreliable service — help won’t be on the way from the state Legislature anytime soon.

Although the state Senate passed legislation that aims to expand broadband Internet across the state, the House of Delegates declined to take up the bills, parking them in committees and dooming them to the legislative landfill with just two days remaining in this year’s regular session.

“It’s unfortunate,” said Sen. Chris Walters, R-Putnam, who pushed broadband expansion. “I think not making that a priority [in the House] has been an issue.”

In recent days, Walters has tried to light a fire under House leadership, posting comments on his Facebook page, putting out a news release and urging constituents to call legislators and demand that they start running the Senate’s broadband bills.

It hasn’t worked. The bills remained on the sidelines Thursday, the last day to pass legislation out of committees. The House wants to study broadband issues during legislative interim meetings over the next 10 months.

“I’m sure Senator Walters is disappointed about his bill,” said House Majority Leader Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan. “There’s support in the House for expanding broadband infrastructure in West Virginia, but there’s still debate on how to best attack that issue.”

Last month, the Senate passed a bill (SB 315) that would create a state-owned fiber-cable Internet network. The legislation allowed Internet companies — and perhaps cities and counties — to apply for grant money and bonds through the state government. The Internet providers would build the statewide network in segments.

Walters contends that the project would spur competition, driving down prices and bolstering Internet speeds.

“It would create one of the fastest and most affordable fiber-optic infrastructures in the country,” Walters said.

Frontier Communications and cable companies lobbied against the bill, arguing that the project wasn’t economically sustainable, and that it would leave taxpayers on the hook for tens of millions of dollars.

Although the project was designed to link rural communities with high-speed fiber, the bill didn’t guarantee that a single business or home without high-speed Internet would get broadband service. The House stuck the bill in its Political Subdivisions Committee, where it has languished for weeks.

“Our concern was: Does this [legislation] take away from trying to expand into those rural areas that need broadband today?” Cowles said.

Also last month, the Senate passed a bill that specifically targets potential rural broadband customers. The legislation (SB 16) provided tax credits to companies that bring high-speed Internet services to homes and businesses in West Virginia’s most remote areas — places like Randolph, Pocahontas and Nicholas counties. About 12,000 homes and businesses stood to get Internet for the first time, thanks to the tax credit bill.

But the legislation stalled in the House Finance Committee. The tax breaks were expected to cost the state about $6.1 million over the life of the program.

“All the tax credit bills this year have had close scrutiny because of the budget situation,” Cowles said.

At the start of the legislative session, the House Judiciary Committee briefly debated a bill [HB 2551] that targets telecommunications companies that advertise “high-speed” Internet but deliver slow speeds. The legislation requires Internet providers to offer download speeds of at least 10 megabits per second if the companies advertise their broadband service as “high speed.”

The Judiciary Committee appointed a subcommittee to analyze the issue, but the full committee never advanced any legislation to the full House.

Staff writer David Gutman contributed to this report.

©2016 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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