The Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee took up a bill Wednesday that its sponsor says will create a government owned broadband interstate in West Virginia.
Senate Bill 459 calls on the state to invest $78 million in expanding broadband access to West Virginians. The money would pay for the installation of 2,600 miles of broadband fiber across West Virginia with an emphasis on expanding access in rural areas.
The state would own the fiber, but give open access to any private business who may want to build off of the main fibers into smaller communities. The bill’s lead sponsor and Transportation Committee Chair Sen. Chris Walters said that would help cut down on the private sector’s costs and incentivize them to expand access.
Representatives of both cable internet providers and Frontier told the committee they see the bill as inserting government directly into competition with the private sector. They say their companies have already invested upwards of a billion dollars to expand access and its working
But Jim Martin, owner of the internet provider CityNet, told committee members the expansion would allow the private sector to partner with the state to provide much needed access while lowering the cost for providing service to schools, libraries and other government buildings.
He said the state received a Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, or BTOP grant from the federal government for a similar project, but that project didn’t help with access problems.
“We were all very hopeful that when the BTOP funds were made available in which the state received $126 million dollars to build a middle mile network, that that was going to be a solution for us,” Martin said. “At the end of the day BTOP didn’t do anything for broadband in West Virginia.”
The state spent some $30 million of the grant on wireless routers that were installed in rural libraries and State Police barracks, many of which were reportedly too large.
Martin, who was a member of West Virginia Broadband Deployment Council, a committee created by the governor that focused on ways the state could increase access to rural areas, told the committee the state put $60 million in a wireless network that isn’t being used and awarded $40 million to Frontier to “extend their last mile network into state facilities and continue to keep a grip on top of state government.”
“There was no middle mile built with that $126 million,” Martin said, “so here we are today trying to find other ways in which we can find funds to get into our rural markets where our citizens are significantly challenged.”
Many members of the committee spoke in favor of the bill despite the high cost.
It ultimately passed and now goes to the Senate Judiciary Committee for its consideration.