West Virginia still coming up short on broadband

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State officials in West Virginia yesterday presented a letter to state lawmakers indicating that despite multiple investigations and plan revisions of its broadband plan, broadband access is still available at fewer anchor institutions than originally intended. The state’s broadband expansion plan has been an object lesson in government missteps – a lesson which seems likely to continue despite efforts to get the project back on track.

When West Virginia first submitted its broadband expansion plan and application for federal funding, the plan was readily accepted by federal officials. However, after the state failed to meet its deployment deadlines, the plan and its progress were investigated by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) which was overseeing federal money going to the project. As CivSource reported, the December 2011 investigation resulted in significant plan revisions after state officials realized that many of the anchor institutions originally included as future access points already had high speed broadband.

After the first revision, federal officials approved the state’s new plan and resumed funding the project. Then, in July 2012, NTIA and the US Inspector General’s office launched a second audit of West Virginia’s broadband spending to determine if funds were misappropriated.

It appeared by November of 2012, the state was finally on its way to moving past some of these issues. Officials announced that they were releasing performance based pay to Frontier Communications, the private sector company tasked with much of West Virginia’s expansion plan. Officials noted at that time that the company was meeting its goals and was expected to continue. Now, the latest data from the state shows that while the expansion did move forward in some cases the state is still coming up short.

The West Virginia Economic Development Authority also announced a $7 million loan to Citynet a private internet services provider to expand private fiber optic networks throughout the state. In that announcement, the company said it had already been building out these networks silently for nearly a year.

The state named 175 anchor institutions in its middle mile expansion project. However, now, only 7 of those sites will have fiber installed. The other 168 sites will only be getting new routers. State officials said they made this determination because installing fiber would take too much time and they want to meet their deadline. Presumably, the state is focused on the deadline in order to avoid a third investigation regardless of whether the project actually meets its goals.

The same story is true for hundreds of other anchor institution sites. After the revisions, 1,065 anchor sites were still included to get broadband in West Virginia. Now, only 639 of them will get fiber and the rest will have routers only. According to the Charleston Gazette, a local newspaper, the state has a glut of routers because procurement officials pre-bought them without knowing how many were actually needed. The buy took place before the state revised down its list of anchor institutions after it discovered which ones on the original list already had access and equipment. Another piece in The State Journal, a local business newspaper, notes that some institutions getting the routers will have to upgrade their own systems to use them and raises questions about whether or not the routers purchased were even the right ones. The routers cost over $22,000 each.