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West Virginia County Pushes to Expand Broadband to All Areas

The Monongalia County Commission has issued a request for proposals seeking partners to get high-speed Internet to all corners of the county. An unserved area in the western part of the county has been identified as an area of pressing need.

(TNS) — The Monongalia County Commission on Wednesday issued a request for proposals seeking partners in its effort to get high-speed
Internet into all corners of the county.

Commissioner Sean Sikora, who's led the commission's broadband efforts, explained the RFP represents a change of tack for the county, which hired a team in May 2021 and tasked it with producing a comprehensive broadband plan that will serve as the roadmap to county-wide connectivity.

Much of that data is in hand, including advanced engineering for what's known as "Ring 11, " a largely unserved vertical strip across western Monongalia County previously identified as the area of most pressing need.

But the massive influx of federal Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) dollars has changed the dynamic. West Virginia will get $1.2 billion of the $42 billion broadband pie, which is the 11th largest allocation in the country.

The county had planned to take its advanced broadband planning and a large chunk of its American Rescue Plan Act money and leverage grants that would allow it to build the needed infrastructure across the county.

Sikora said it appears instead as if that money will be distributed directly to Internet service providers, or ISPs.

"From the federal level and the state level, they seem not to be interested in people who were doing it the right way, the comprehensive way. It seems like they prefer the shotgun approach, so we've had to pivot a little bit, " Sikora said. "So, we said, 'Let's have a process where we can provide a lot of the due diligence and a lot of information to these entities and help them apply for these dollars.'"

But the county has more than data to offer. It also still has about $8.3 million in ARPA dollars earmarked for county connectivity.

Sikora said that money could be used to incentivize ISPs to connect smaller areas that may not be eligible for state or federal grant support.

He said Comcast and Breezeline have expressed interest in working with the county. There is also potential to work with Prodigi out of Preston County.

"It's a unique RFP because usually you have a very prescribed result that you want. What we're asking for is, 'Be innovative and show us what you can do for our citizens so we make the best use of these remaining dollars.'" he said. "I feel very confident that we're going to do some real good in the next three to four months in getting projects awarded to ISPs and have real connectivity start."

Chris Miller is a partner with Ice Miller Telecommunications Law and part of the county's broadband team.

"So what we're doing is going to the market and saying, 'Take this information and tell us how you would serve what we believe our problems are and, by the way, tell us what other problems you think we might have and highlight those for us and tell us how you'd serve them, '" Miller said.

"The work we've done to date is effectively the due diligence for the RFP. Without that work, we wouldn't be able to put a responsible request on the street accurately informing folks of what we're looking for. We wouldn't really know what we're looking for and what our needs are ... We now have concrete evidence and examples of where the holes are. We now know who isn't getting service and who is. It was all anecdotal up to that point."

Proposals are due to the commission by Dec 6. The commission anticipates proposal selection will be complete by Jan. 19.

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