West Virginia Passes Middle-Mile Network Broadband Plan

The West Virginian Legislature debated bills about expanding Internet connectivity and Fantasy Football.

by David Beard, The Dominion Post, Morgantown, W.Va. / February 22, 2016
West Virginia Capitol House Wikicommons
West Virginia Capitol HouseWikicommons

(TNS) -- The Senate passed a bill Thursday to create a new state broadband middle-mile network and another to legalize fantasy football and other online fantasy games.

SB 315 is the broadband bill to create a state-owned 2,000-plus-mile Broadband Middle Mile Infrastructure. Middle mile is a network of cables and towers, a kind of interstate highway, from which last-mile connections to homes and businesses are made.

This network will be fiber optic cable and open to any provider that wants to tie into it to provide last-mile service. The provider would pay fees reflecting construction and maintenance costs for the privilege of access. The state may purchase existing fiber, of at least 144 strands, to incorporate into the network.

Funds for the project — grants, loans, bonds — will go into a special account created by the Water Development Authority and disbursed by the Broadband Enhancement Counsel. The authority will establish zones around the state and bid out construction jobs in each zone.

The Water Development Authority was chosen as the lead agency, bill sponsor Chris Walters, R-Putnam, said, because it has bonding authority. The bonds can be for up to 50 years.

Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, questioned the wisdom of taking on 50 years of public debt, especially for wired technology that could become obsolete as providers offer wireless service for rural areas.

Sen. Robert Karnes, R-Upshur, and Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, both said broadband expansion is an issue best handled by private companies, not the state. Carmichael noted some in-state spending figures by private providers: AT&T, $300 million; various cable companies since 2000, $2.5 billion; his employer, Frontier, $300 million.

Government action can actually chill private companies’ efforts to expand service, Carmichael said.

Sen. Greg Boso, R-Nicholas, supported the bill, saying it represents a significant investment in rural West Virginia — places the private companies won’t go because there’s too little demand to justify the expense.

Walters said North Carolina built a 2,000-mile network and that didn’t chase away any private business. In fact, the state is thriving. And while Frontier is spending money, it’s laying copper wire, not fiber optic. Frontier is aiming toward 10 megabits per second download speeds while the national benchmark is already well past that, at 25 mbps.

The bill passed, 29-5, and goes to the House. Locally, Democrats Bob Beach, Jeff Kessler and Bob Williams, and Republicans Kent Leonhardt and Dave Sypolt voted yes. Democrat Roman Prezioso voted no.

Fantasy football

SB 529 clarifies that participating in online fantasy sports, such as football and golf, is legal. Somewhere from 200,000 to 900,000 West Virginians participate, it was said, most of them young.

Debate in committee and on the floor focused on whether the activity is gambling or a game of skill, and whether it should be regulated and taxed.

Woelfel, an ardent supporter, said it’s a game of skill. Participants have to use detailed analyses of player statistics to decide how they’ll play.

Sen. Mike Romano considered it gambling because there’s an up-front fee — he termed it a bet — and a potential loss or payoff. On Wednesday, he proposed a failed amendment to charge the companies — DraftKings and FanDuel being the two most famous — a $250,000 registration fee and $25,000 annual renewal fee in order to operate. He contended the state should get some money out of it.

Woelfel and others countered that the companies are based out of state and the state sees income when people win and report it on their income taxes.

Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, spoke at length about the potential harm of legalizing yet another form of gambling. It’s addictive, he said, and big-money lobbyists are here pushing the bill because they know how much is spent on it.

It passed, 18-16, but not along party lines. Five of 18 Republicans voted against it and five of 16 Democrats voted for it. Locally, Beach, Williams and Leonhardt voted yes; Kessler, Prezioso and Sypolt voted no.

©2016 The Dominion Post (Morgantown, W.Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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