The terms “router-gate” and “tower-gate” have been thrown around in committee meetings, in newspaper articles, on social media, to refer to what some are calling major mess ups by the previous and current administrations’ efforts to expand internet access across the state.
The funds those scandals misused came to West Virginia as a grant under the Federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, or BTOP. Legislative audits show that money was misused in various ways and now some are calling on the state to take a look at whether the expansion of the broadband fiber optic cable network has also been mismanaged.
“We’ve already had a router-gate, we had a tower-gate, we don’t need to have a fiber-gate,” President and CEO of internet provider Citynet, Jim Martin said during an interim Committee on Technology meeting.
He was referring to the fiber expansion program headed by Frontier Communications.
As a part of the grant award, the state identified about 1,064 so-called anchor locations, places like schools, public libraries, or prisons. An anchor location would receive a new router—yes, those same “router-gate” routers- and would then be hooked up with new cable to the existing broadband network in their area by Frontier.
The grant said that cable is then open access, meaning any company could connect. In theory, rural communities would be gaining access not only to broadband, but also to competition on the market.
But Martin said that’s not what happened.
“For example, in Bridgeport at the Public Library, Frontier did not have fiber going into the library. It was out on the street, but it didn’t go into the library,” he said after the meeting Monday. “So, what they did was build a thousand feet of cable from the data room in the library out to the pole and then connected it to their network at that point.”
Martin said that thousand feet of cable from the library to the pole is open access for his company, Citynet, to provide service, but it’s such a small portion of cable it’s unusable.
Instead, he believes Frontier should have run the cable from the individual community anchors to a centralized location where all communication wires from all providers come together. That way the providers would have had access to the federally funded fibers.
But that’s where the grant stipulations come into play.
Gale Given, the state’s Chief Technology Officer, who also happens to be a former Frontier executive, testified before the committee the grant was written to leverage the existing infrastructure, meaning the company couldn’t duplicate existing Frontier fiberoptics.
“So, if there was no fiber then we ran fiber from the central office all the way to the school,” Given said. “If there was fiber halfway to the school then we picked up there and ran the fiber the rest of the way.”
Martin, however, maintained that cable should have been duplicated, giving other providers open access to the area and creating competition in rural communities.
“Charleston has already got competition, Bridgeport does, but its places like Pickens or Helvetia because there’s only one provider there and probably the system they’ve got is old and antiquated,” Martin said.
“BTOP was about building long distance fiber cables from the larger markets into those very rural markets and then make that cable available to anybody, and then that effectively will create competition.”
Meaning better prices, better service, better broadband for you the customer.
Committee members also brought up concerns about the cost of the expansion.
The state essentially spent $42 million on 675,000 miles of cable and building costs. That’s an average of about $57,000 per mile.
Given said it’s about 22 percent higher than expected, but Martin believed the state paid more than they should have.
Martin said his company and other providers estimate it should have cost $30,000 per mile, but Given disagreed.
In a previous interim meeting, officials from Frontier attributed the additional cost to legal fees and the requirement to pay prevailing wage on state projects.
Chairman Mike Green said no legislation will come from the Technology Committee this interim session.
He called the discussion on the broadband expansion project “fact finding” and said committee members will assist the Senate President, House Speaker, Governor and members of the Legislative Auditors Office on future recommendations when it comes to grant implementation and purchasing.