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Broadband delayed again

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Virginia Broadband Deployment Council is poised to award millions of dollars to companies so they can provide high-speed Internet service in rural areas that already have it, Frontier Communications executive Dana Waldo said Wednesday.

The council postponed plans to distribute $4 million in grants, after Waldo informed the board that Frontier provides wireline, or DSL, broadband coverage in multiple areas where competing wireless telecommunications firms have applied for state funds.

Waldo, who serves on the governor-appointed council, cited state code that prohibits the board from awarding grants for projects in rural areas that already have broadband service.

"I note that many of those areas are currently served or can be reasonably served by Frontier," said Waldo, who heads the company's West Virginia operations. "Are we spinning our wheels? I'm not comfortable with this."

At Wednesday's meeting, council members reviewed two-dozen projects that a consulting firm had previously ranked.

The council voted to direct the consultants to score and rank the projects a second time based on new information that Frontier has provided about its broadband service in rural areas.

The broadband council initially asked for telecommunications firms to disclose their broadband service areas in West Virginia two years ago. Most companies, including Frontier, complied, but the information apparently wasn't updated in recent months.

After the council posted a list of grant applicants in September and a review committee ranked projects, Frontier executives sent an email to the consultants, saying the company already offered broadband service in many areas where competitors were seeking grant money.

At Wednesday's meeting, the consultants, who work for Pennsylvania-based L.R. Kimball, said Frontier didn't provide the latest broadband coverage maps until after the projects had been scored.

"That consideration was absent when they were ranked," Waldo acknowledged.

The council plans to vote on the projects -- based on new rankings -- on Dec. 12.

The state Legislature allocated the broadband project grant money and established the council four years ago.

"We need the best possible information of where broadband exists and where it doesn't," said Dan O'Hanlon, the council's chairman.

Broadband council member Lee Fisher, who's affiliated with a Braxton County project seeking a $57,500 grant to build wireless towers, said companies such as Frontier say they provide coverage to rural areas, but some neighborhoods, or "pockets," within those "covered" areas might not have access to broadband. Fisher has recused himself from discussions about the Braxton project.

Waldo said Frontier also offers satellite Internet service, so technically every household in West Virginia has access to broadband.

"If our mission is to increase broadband access, we need to consider satellite," he said. "We have hundreds of [satellite] customers."

Wireless companies have requested $3.1 million in grants to build towers, while nonprofit groups applied for an additional $923,000 in funds to publicize the benefits of high-speed Internet.

Frontier has ties to four of the projects -- submitted by Pendleton County nonprofit Future Generations -- designed to increase broadband demand.

At least four broadband council members -- and a member of a committee reviewing the applications -- have connections to companies or organizations seeking grant funds.

Waldo questioned whether council members with potential conflicts should have served on the grant application review committee. Waldo, who did not sit on the subcommittee, suggested the council seek an advisory opinion from the state Ethics Commission.

"This council is under intense scrutiny," he said. "I want to make sure we do everything above board."

Council members who served on the review committee said Wednesday that they didn't take part in any discussions about projects they had ties to. They noted that the state ethics agency already had given the green light to the subcommittee's application review process. 

"They had bright line rules that they followed," O'Hanlon said.

"There was no violation that I heard from any member," added Jan Fox, who serves on the council and review committee.

Also Wednesday, two council members -- Jim Martin and Jim Nester -- requested copies of engineering maps that were used to bring fiber-optic cable to more than 1,000 public facilities in West Virginia as part of a separate $126.3 million federal stimulus project. Martin said the maps would help council members with their vote next month on pending broadband project applications. He has asked for the maps during at least two previous meetings.

O'Hanlon said he would ask state officials overseeing the statewide broadband project to provide the information by the Dec. 12 meeting.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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