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West Virginia Broadband Panel to Get New Duties, but No Funds

The panel will receive any money remaining from the former Broadband Deployment Council’s account, but the council announced that it planned to spend all leftover funds on final reports and audits.

(Tribune News Service) -- A governor-appointed panel charged with expanding high-speed Internet in West Virginia is getting a new name, members and duties – but no money for projects.

Last week, state lawmakers passed a bill (SB488) to establish the Broadband Enhancement Council, a replacement for the former Broadband Deployment Council, which folded Dec. 31.

The biggest change: The new council won’t include representatives of Internet providers, such as Frontier Communications, Suddenlink and Citynet. Instead, most members will represent businesses and consumers who subscribe to Internet services.

“In the past, there were definitely turf wars [among Internet providers],” said Natalie Roper, who heads Generation West Virginia, a group that pushed for the bill. “We’re shifting the conversation to how do we provide the best broadband access, instead of having a conversation about how do we make the most money.”

Then-Gov. Joe Manchin, now a U.S. senator, established the Broadband Deployment Council in 2009. State lawmakers allocated $5 million to the group, which spent the money on consultants and wireless Internet projects in rural areas.

The new legislation, which Tomblin is expected to sign into law, creates a “broadband enhancement fund,” but state lawmakers didn’t set aside any money for the fund. The bill, however, seems to allow outside groups to donate to the fund. The panel also will receive any money remaining from the former Broadband Deployment Council’s account, but the council announced last year that it planned to spend all leftover funds on final reports and audits.

At the outset, the new broadband council is expected to gather data about residential and business customers’ Internet speeds – and compare speeds to those advertised by broadband providers.

The new council also will be asked to examine existing broadband networks.

“We’ve identified broadband as being the absolute bedrock of economic development,” said Roper, whose group works to attract and retain young professionals in West Virginia. “If people want to start their own business, they can’t really do that without Internet. By denying rural communities the Internet, we’re denying them the most vital tool for economic revitalization.”

Under the bill, the new council will have 13 members, six of whom must represent residents and businesses in rural communities. Two members will represent urban areas. Other seats will be assigned to the state commerce secretary, chief technology officer, state schools superintendent and vice chancellor of higher education.

State Homeland Security Director Jimmy Gianato’s council seat was eliminated, along with seats that went to Internet providers and equipment manufacturers.

In 2010, the state received $126.3 million in federal stimulus funds to expand high-speed Internet in West Virginia. The money helped to improve Internet speeds at schools, libraries, jails and other public facilities, but did nothing to expand Internet services to rural homes and businesses, the project’s critics said.

Broadband Deployment Council members wanted some say in the project, but were told to butt out because it was funded by the federal government.

Roper said the new council should have oversight of future broadband projects in West Virginia

“If we’re going to spend money on broadband infrastructure that’s so critical, we need a government entity to make sure the money is spent well,” Roper said. “We need to take the conversation seriously and bring all the right players to the table. The Broadband Enhancement Council is a real important step one.”

Last month, the Senate Finance Committee killed a bill that aimed to build a $78 million “middle-mile” broadband network in West Virginia. Frontier opposed the project, saying it would duplicate the company’s existing networks.

Roper’s group supported the broadband expansion bill, arguing the project would help improve education and healthcare, and spur entrepreneurship in West Virginia.

“If we solely depend on private industry, we’ll just stay at the status quo,” Roper said. “If students can’t access textbooks online at home, and if doctors can’t access electronic health records, we’re in trouble. [Broadband] is like good roads and water lines. It’s everything.”

©2015 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC