Broadband Expansion Bill, Minus Funding Provisions, Now Awaits Signature From Justice
The West Virginia Legislature’s latest bill for broadband expansion is off to the governor, having completed its legislative journey.
To lead sponsor Del. Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, House Bill 2002 is a good bill — one that offers new consumer protections to broadband users, makes the deployment of publicly owned infrastructure possible and expands on existing data-collection efforts to identify areas of the state that need high-speed internet.
But he said it could’ve been better. In the 40 days the Senate had to consider the bill after its passage out of the House in March, Linville said, telecommunications companies like Comcast and Suddenlink objected to attempts to add funding provisions for open access broadband infrastructure and grant-matching to the bill.
Those efforts included a bill he introduced that never passed its committee, and two failed amendments from Sen. Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, in the Senate.
“They think that because we need this so desperately, they can write the legislation," Linville said in the House Saturday night.
“They think they can threaten us with stopping projects they have planned in order to ensure that we take no action describing how funds should be disbursed in a way that would be to the greatest benefit of our citizens," Linville said. "Bending that way is exactly what got us in the position we're in."
"No. 1 Goal" Is To Get Fiber On Poles
Plymale tried twice on the Senate floor to amend the bill to include funding plans for attracting new broadband providers to the state, matching grants for local projects and creating “open access” broadband infrastructure, which — as long as the project was done solely with public funding — would've allowed more than one broadband provider to serve its customers from the same public network.
The amendments wouldn’t literally have added any extra dollars to the bill, although both chambers did agree to appropriate $50 million more in spending authority for broadband enhancement in 2022 than the roughly $1.1 million that’s in the current budget.
The state also anticipates hundreds of millions of dollars from federal programs like the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund and the American Rescue Act for broadband deployment over the next few years.
One of Plymale’s amendments succeeded Thursday morning, two days before the end of session — but then lawmakers reconsidered his motion that afternoon and took the amendment back, following what Linville later called “intense industry opposition.”
“I understand that what I'm asking for will not be done,” Plymale had said to the Senate. “But I will tell you, and I plead with you, you better pay attention to this. You better get involved in this. We cannot let the monopolies rule the roost or we will not serve our people.”
Senate President Craig Blair said on the floor Thursday that members received “feedback from the sector.” But, Blair promised the legislature will spend more time before the next session studying the benefits and implications of creating funds like these.
“We will get there,” Blair said, adding he will advocate for a special session or broadband-related work over the interim session. “My No. 1 goal here is to get fiber on the poles, everywhere in the state of West Virginia.”
‘You Can’t Fully Participate In Society’ Without High-Speed Internet
Despite the funding debates, House Bill 2002 traveled with near-unanimous support as it passed both chambers and their committees.
The legislation offers a credit to consumers whose service is interrupted for more than 24 hours continuously, and at least 30 days notice for any billing changes. All of the new protections are to be overseen by the newly created Office of Broadband, which is supposed to coordinate with the Consumer Protection Division of the state's office of the attorney general.
The bill eases some regulations for companies who wish to install their broadband telecommunications infrastructure in shared trenches operated by the Division of Highways with other utility companies. But, it also allows local city and county governments to partner with nonprofits and private organizations to install broadband facilities, making open access networks possible.
Outside the capitol, the AARP’s associate state director, Angela Vance, said Wednesday the group “is pleased” with the latest version, especially data-collection provisions to map out which areas in the state have need. Vance said this is aimed at helping state leaders make “data-informed decisions” on broadband deployment.
“I think it’s complex, so it’s not something a lot of people are talking about,” Vance said. “But frankly, we just can’t rely on the federal government to provide that data. We just have to collect it on our own.”
Ultimately, Vance said, better broadband will help AARP members, and the whole state, with disparities that the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted — those for telehealth care access, education and connecting with others.
“It really has just amplified and highlighted the fact that you can’t fully participate in society if you don’t have high-speed internet,” Vance said.
Should the governor sign the bill, it will be one of several broadband-related efforts in the last five years. Those include bills to create a Broadband Enhancement Council, a ‘dig once’ policy for installing broadband infrastructure, and a middle-mile expansion program.
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.