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West Virginia Lawmaker Calls for State Broadband Regulation

With West Virginia set to receive $362 million in federal funds for rural broadband expansion, Del. Mick Bates of Raleigh County is pushing for the state to begin regulating Internet service.

West Virginia Capitol Building
Shutterstock/Sean Pavone
(TNS) — With West Virginia set to receive $362 million in federal funds for rural broadband expansion, Del.  Mick Bates  of Raleigh County is pushing for the state to begin regulating internet service.

Bates said Friday that Suddenlink (Altice), which provides internet service in southern West Virginia, is operating as an unregulated monopoly. He wants the State Public Service Commission, which regulates utility companies, to oversee internet companies like Suddenlink.

"It's essential," said Bates. "It's essential for schooling. It's essential for business. It's essential for health care.

"You can't get a Covid vaccine unless you go on the frigging internet and register.

"We should be guaranteeing a basic level of quality service, at the same fee, for everybody.

"The state is going to put millions of dollars down at these companies, without any regulatory framework to make sure they do the right thing, spend the money the right way, and people who don't get what they need have nowhere to go to complain and get their questions answered."

Bates' interest started out when local residents began complaining about service provided by Suddenlink. Bates, who owns BodyWorks in Beckley, alleged that he has also experienced erratic rates, inadequate internet delivery and poor customer service — all complaints that he said he had heard from other local residents.

Currently, he said, there is no regulatory agency to require that internet be treated like a utility for consumers.

Bates said Friday that with $50 million to be allocated in broadband expansion over the next three years, starting in 2022, legislators must take steps to regulate broadband and internet service in West Virginia for consumers.

"We're going to pass some laws, particularly if we're going to spend all this money," Bates said. "I think it's criminal.

"There's a massive amount of public funds that are going to go into this."

He said that lawmakers must take steps to ensure that consumers get quality service, price consistency and reliable customer service and to ensure that internet is regulated as other utilities under state code.

"Electricity works pretty well. I don't have too many problems with it, unless a tree falls on it," he noted. "If I turn the tap on, water comes out.

"If there's a problem with the pipe, they come up and fix it.

"When it comes to internet, it's like, um, call back.

"But it's as essential as those things. You can't operate in the modern world without access to the internet in a reliable manner, at a decent capacity."

Public Service Commission Chair  Charlotte Lane  said Friday that the PSC does not regulate internet service.

The Legislature specifically says we do not regulate (internet)," said Lane. "The FCC ( Federal Communications Commission) regulates internet.

"We do get a lot of complaints about Suddenlink," Lane said. "The complaints we get are a lot of outages and the problem of getting a hold of Suddenlink, getting them to come out and fix the problem, taking too long, sometimes equipment has been returned to Suddenlink, and Suddenlink doesn't give them credit on their bills.

"It runs the gamut of all sorts of consumer complaints."

Lane said the PSC regulates cable companies, although the FCC does not permit the PSC to regulate rates.

"All we can do is work on service issues and outages," she said. "We don't do rates.

"The most that we have been able to do is help customers of Suddenlink because they have cable through Suddenlink, mostly by cajoling Suddenlink into helping them."

Lane said she plans to meet with Bates on Monday to address his concerns.

----Bates pointed out that Suddenlink and other companies began providing internet service after registering in the state as cable companies. While cable companies may be overseen by local franchise authorities in cities and counties, Bates said, internet is not currently included.

The pandemic forced consumers to rely on internet service for telemedicine, mental health care, groceries, online shopping, pharmaceutical deliveries, vaccine registration and education, and health care networks and school systems have had to rely on broadband to provide services.

"It's always been bad, but now it's even worse because there's more people on it," he said. "The infrastructure's not there, but they don't have any trouble charging you for it."

Although the federal CARES Act recognizes the role internet plays in the modern world by allocating funding for broadband expansion, there is still a gap in regulation that has led to a number of frustrations for many Americans, said Bates.

"I think we're starting from ground zero on this thing," he said Friday. "I don't think any states are doing a good job.

"I can remember when you didn't have it. It's not that long ago, really. So what happens is, this whole industry has grown up, and we haven't grown up with it in terms of being able to regulate it effectively, because it's run by cable companies.

"That's the rub. I'm trying to research what other places do, and I'm not having any luck."

He reported that some internet companies are sending more data along the same number of lines. According to Bates, customers have complained that Suddenlink raises rates without notification, gives different customers different rates for the same services and does not deal promptly with outages.

"The more people that are on it, the more demands that are placed on it and the less comprehensive the service, for the same amount of money," he said. "There's nobody to complain to. Where do you go? Call customer service? Then you want to complain to somebody about customer service. The only thing worse than the service is the customer service.

"It's appalling," Bates said. "They're used to having a monopoly. You have no alternative."

In his inauguration speech, Gov.  Jim Justice  listed broadband expansion as a major aim of his second term, stating he wants to "blanket the state" in broadband, after the pandemic exposed the need for reliable access.

Local government currently has no control over internet service, Raleigh County Commission President  Dave Tolliver  said Friday.

"We have a cable franchise in Raleigh County that (means) every person in Raleigh County has a cable in their house," he said. "We get a few dollars from each cable that's in a home or a business.

"How could you regulate internet? That's a good question. I would have to research that before I could think about regulating internet service, but the idea sounds good."

Tolliver said Suddenlink unexpectedly raised his residential bill from about $184 to $204. When his wife called, customer service refused to lower it, even though a neighbor pays $164 for the same services.

"I think one thing that needs to be changed is, if one person pays $170 for the service, everybody should pay the same," he said.

Beckley Mayor  Rob Rappold  said the city also has a franchise authority for cable in the city but that he has not been informed of any initiatives to oversee internet.

City attorney  Bill File  was not immediately available Friday.

----In October, Justice and Republican lawmakers and Republican legislative candidates collectively pledged $1 billion for broadband funding starting in 2021.

That $1 billion figure included the $766 million the state was eligible for through the FCC Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction, plus $50 million allocated from the $1.25 billion federal CARES Act funding set aside for coronavirus expenses and a promise to allocate $50 million for broadband expansion in the General Revenue budget every year for three years starting in fiscal year 2022.

In order to encourage companies in the state to participate in the RDOF auction, Justice had signed an executive order in September which removed regulatory caps on the West Virginia Development Authority's Broadband Loan Insurance Program.

He also ordered the Economic Development Authority under the Department of Commerce to limit the application approval from the Broadband Loan Insurance Program to no more than is necessary for the first year of the program.

RDOF Phase I auctions started Oct. 29.

In November, state lawmakers formed the West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council to "represent diverse users of broadband, including residential and business users, from various locations throughout the state," according to the legislative website.

West Virginia was eligible to receive $766 million through the auction. Instead, the state pulled down $362.1 million for projects in 119,267 census tracts in late 2020. Of that amount, the largest — $247.6 million — went to Frontier Communications.

In December, the Federal Communications Commission announced that nine companies were selected for the first phase of an auction that will bring high-speed broadband internet to unserved regions of West Virginia.

The auction allocated $9.2 billion over a 10-year period to subsidize construction of high-speed gigabit internet in unserved rural areas across the country.

Suddenlink (Altice) won a bid for projects, along with Space Exploration Technologies Corp.Bridgeport-based CitynetCommnet WirelessBruceton Mills-based Digital/ PRODIGIBluefield, Va.-based GigaBeamBuckhannon-based Micrologic, and Shenandoah Cable Television.

The first phase of the two-phase auction will go toward areas with no service.

The reduced pull-down, U.S. Sen.  Joe Manchin  told a local television station on Friday, was a result of reverse auctions, a funding strategy in which the winning bidder requires the lowest amount of support funds. Manchin said it encourages companies that are able to bring improvements to West Virginia to instead go to areas with a larger population. He reported that while Justice had planned earlier in the pandemic to allot hundreds of millions for broadband improvements, the state received only half due to reverse auctions.

"Twenty percent of the population lives in what we considered rural America; our entire state is considered rural. If they put $10 billion to fight broadband, rural broadband would only get 2 billion," Manchin told WVNS.

He added that FCC maps which were used to distribute federal funding to areas most in need had also erroneously listed 90 percent of West Virginia as having broadband coverage — a figure that many West Virginians joined Manchin in challenging.

In December, Justice said the $362 million was the ninth highest total support by dollar value of the states receiving RDOF funds, but with the state pulling down only $362.1 million in the RDOF auction, lawmakers are $387 million short of Republican members' $1 billion pledge.

(c)2021 The Register-Herald (Beckley, W.Va.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.