WV broadband council holds meeting at NRAO
A capacity crowd filled the Jansky lab auditorium at the National Radio Astronomy observatory on July 23rd as the West Virginia Broadband Deployment Council [WVBDC] convened a council meeting with members both present and attending via conference call with council chairman Judge Dan O’Hanlon presiding. The fact that the meeting was being held at the observatory was due largely to the efforts of NRAO business manager Mike Holstine, the force behind organizing the broadband summit to address the lack of broadband availability in many parts of Pocahontas County.
The council was created by the state several years ago to administer grant money for the specific purpose of bringing broadband access to every area of the state, especially in rural and underserved areas. When asked how the council would do this, Judge O’Hanlon clarified what the council role is.
“We don’t provide broadband, we’re the broadband council which is a group providers, citizens and people who work in government,” he said, “and we try to encourage providers to provide their broadband solution to you and they get paid for doing that. They have to find what makes sense cost-wise, and our job is toi try to give them as many solutions by doing a small pilot [project] like this that shows here’s what the cost is for this, so they don’t have to risk their money to find that out; and then they’ll make those decisions.”
“We want to encourage them to put it everywhere in West Virginia, so nobody gets left behind. That’s the goal of this group, that’s why the legislature set us up.”
The project O’Hanlon refers to is a pilot project in Marshall County to assess the process of providing last mile connectivity to a sparsely populated area in the northern panhandle of the state. An audit of the project by the council has shown that the provider was able to provide reliable and affordable broadband to an underserved area.
Council member Jim Martin, CEO of Citynet, explained that federal stimulus money was used to build large portions of a fiber network that currently serves Pocahontas and Randolph counties, specifically with connections between Mill Creek to Durbin, Green Bank to Cass and Snowshoe to Valley Head. The rest of the loop is covered by a fiber network built with private from Frontier Communications. However, Martin says Frontier’s fiber is not open access, available at a significant discount to competing providers such as Citynet, and that the tariffs that Frontier charges to other providers would make providing access to residents very costly. With this in mind, Martin made a motion that the council make available its remaining funding, estimated to be around $690,000.00 to build a fiber network that would fill the gaps between the existing network built with federal funds, making the entire loop open access. He also asked that West Virginia Network [WVNET], a state provider, be allowed to solicit bids from providers to do the work. O’Hanlon, who serves as WVNET’s executive director, recused himself from voting on the motion, as did one other member of the council.
Fellow council member Dana Waldo, Senior VP and general manager of Frontier Communications for West Virginia argued that this would essentially duplicate the already existing fiber built by their company, and expressed his opposition to the motion. He said this proposal is outside of the bounds of what the council was set up to do and that to use taxpayer money to overbuild existing facilities is not appropriate. Waldo made a motion to instead return the remaining funds back to the state, but the motion died for lack of a second.
With only 5 of the 8 present council members voting on the motion, Martin amended the motion to approve it pending a full quorum of council members and review and approval by the state attorney general. The five members of the council voted 3-2 in favor of this motion. The legislation creating the West Virginia Broadband Deployment Council is due to expire at the end of 2014.