ONLINE: To read the report, visit www.wvpolicy.org/downloads/
A new report urges state officials to establish a government office that would oversee plans to bring high-speed Internet to more homes and businesses across West Virginia.
The report also recommends that the state strengthen the West Virginia Broadband Deployment Council, create public outreach programs to stimulate broadband demand and distribute more than $4.5 million previously set aside for broadband projects.
"We want to make sure the money is well spent," said the Rev. James Patterson, who serves on the board of the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy. "This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. If we mess this up, we may never get another chance."
The center's report follows a tumultuous week for the state broadband council. Council member Mike Friloux, a Citynet executive, abruptly resigned last week after The Charleston Gazette reported that he had held a seat on the board illegally since 2008.
Friloux was serving as a "general public" member, a position that requires West Virginia residency. He lives in Tulsa, Okla. Friloux also was supposed to represent consumers, but he said he thought he was representing Citynet and other telecommunications providers on the council.
"It was just endemic of their problems," said Paul E. Miller, who authored the broadband report for the policy center. "There's been a lack of focus, a lack of resources, a lack of professionalism.
"That's why we want to strengthen the council. We're not trying to take them down."
Miller said the broadband council has failed to comply with numerous requirements under state law.
"The council has not lived up to its statutory obligations," he said. "There are important functions they are not fulfilling."
The legislation that established the council in 2008, for instance, requires multiple state agencies to submit annual reports on broadband projects to the council by Oct. 31 every year. The secretary of Administration, Department of Education and Healthcare Authority didn't turn in any reports last year.
"This information would empower the council to make the right decisions over which projects to fund and to leverage resources," Miller said.
State law also requires the broadband council to sponsor public outreach and education programs designed to increase the demand for high-speed Internet throughout the state.
"They haven't done any outreach efforts for business or residential customers," Miller said. "The community has to be educated on how critical broadband is."
In 2008, the council received a $5 million appropriation from the Legislature, but has spent only about $400,000 so far.
The report recommends that the council establish procedures that would allow telecommunications companies, nonprofits and public agencies to apply for those funds. State law requires the council to fund projects in "unserved" and "underserved" areas.
Miller and Patterson also say the state must establish an "Office of Broadband Outreach and Development."
The broadband office - staffed by a director and support personnel - could fall under the state's Office of Technology, Miller said. The division could monitor and evaluate the state's broadband deployment efforts, he said.
Kentucky set up a state broadband office in October. Virginia also has a state broadband agency.
"Those are two states that understand the value of broadband in rural communities to the point they said, 'We're going to institutionalize it,'" Miller said.
State broadband council member Lee Fisher, who lives in rural Braxton County, supports creating such an office.
"It's long overdue," Fisher said last week.
West Virginia ranks 48th in the nation for the percentage of people with access to high-speed Internet. Broadband availability ranges from a low of 25 percent in Doddridge and Pendleton counties, to 100 percent coverage in Brooke and Ohio counties, according to the report.
"We just want low-cost, high-quality broadband for the citizens of West Virginia," Patterson said. "There's all this money available. We're concerned about this opportunity being squandered."
Last year, West Virginia received $126.3 million in federal stimulus funds to expand high-speed Internet to health-care facilities, schools, libraries and other public agencies.
Citynet executives publicly criticized the state's plans to spend the money, saying not a single household or business would benefit.
Citynet wants the state to build a "middle-mile" broadband network that the company and other telecommunications providers could tap into. The state is constructing a "last-mile" network that will be owned and operated by Frontier Communications, a Citynet competitor.
Citynet asked the council to suspend the federal grant, but the board said it didn't have the authority to do so. The Governor's Office applied for and received the stimulus funds.
Miller and Patterson said the council likely could have tempered the dispute by allowing Citynet to apply for funds from the council's $5 million account.
The broadband council is scheduled to disband at the end of this year, but legislation was recently introduced to keep the council going.
West Virginia's rough terrain has impeded economic development, Miller said. A statewide broadband network - one that's affordable and fast - would spark development and help West Virginia compete on a national and global scale, he said.
"This is the future of West Virginia," Miller said. "This is the future of economic development. This needs to be priority No. 1 moving forward."
Reach Eric Eyre at email@example.com or 304-348-4869.
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