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Council wants broadband minimum speeds redefined

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia Broadband Deployment Council members plan to ask state lawmakers to redefine broadband speeds to expand the pool of applicants seeking funds for projects that increase high-speed Internet service in rural communities. 

Last month, the council distributed $2.05 million in funds for broadband projects, but held back another $2 million.

On Wednesday, council members established a subcommittee to draw up proposed legislation that would increase the minimum broadband speed necessary to qualify for state funds.

"All we're trying to do is update the definition of broadband," said Jim Martin, a Broadband Deployment Council member.

State law now sets 200 kilobits per second as the minimum broadband speed, one of the slowest limits in the nation.

"It's nonsensical in this day and age," said Gale Given, West Virginia state government's chief technology officer.

Several council members suggested setting the minimum broadband speed at 4 megabits per second.

The Federal Communications Commission suggested that every U.S. household have a 4-megabit Internet download speed by 2020. The FCC determined that minimum speed would be sufficient to send and receive emails, download Web pages and use videoconferencing.

The subcommittee is expected to recommend proposed legislation and a minimum broadband download speed at next month's meeting. The regular legislative session starts Feb. 13.

With the higher minimum broadband speed, council members expect more companies to apply for the $2 million in leftover funds, which could be used to build wireless towers and wireline Internet networks.

Council member Dana Waldo warned his colleagues that constantly changing broadband speeds could lead to the council's distributing money to projects that duplicate service in the same areas.

"We'll get tax dollars chasing tax dollars," said Waldo, who also heads Frontier Communications' West Virginia operations.

Also Wednesday:

* Martin notified the board that interactive maps that show broadband coverage in West Virginia are misleading.

One map shows that a large part of the state has access to Internet download speeds faster than 50 megabits per second. Martin said those speeds are available only to businesses, not residential customers.

"By looking at the map, there's no way 50 'meg' is available to those residential homes," he said.

A consultant created West Virginia's broadband coverage maps, using data from the federal government which asked telecommunication firms to disclose their "maximum advertised speed."

* Council members voted down Waldo's request to re-solicit applications for projects designed to increase demand for high-speed Internet service in rural areas.

Last month, board members postponed a decision on all "demand promotion" projects that requested funding.

State law requires the council to distribute grants in areas that don't have broadband service. So it wouldn't make sense to fund projects to promote broadband in communities that couldn't sign up for Internet service, board members said. 

"What are we promoting demand for, if the infrastructure is not there?" council member Jim Nester said Wednesday before voting against Waldo's proposal.

Last month, Future Generations, a Pendleton County nonprofit, requested $900,000 for four projects to encourage people to sign up for broadband service in Southern West Virginia.

The group's executive director has sharply criticized the Broadband Deployment Council for refusing to fund the nonprofit's projects.

On Wednesday, Future Generations administrators came to the council's meeting accompanied by veterans. The projects would have provided discounted Internet service and digital literacy classes to low-income families and veterans.

"If there's money set aside to help the veterans, I'm asking you to do that," said James McCormick, chairman of the West Virginia Veterans Coalition. "Do not just table this and kick this to the curb."

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


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