West Virginia Governor stopped audit of troubled broadband project

West Virginia Governor stopped audit of troubled broadband project

West Virginia’s efforts to expand broadband across the state with the help of federal BTOP funds has been fraught with investigations, stops and starts. As CivSource has reported, before the project could make it through phase one it was stopped for a federal investigation after officials learned that many of the sites listed for new broadband access points already had broadband.

After that, another investigation went forward as cost overruns and slow deployment caught the eye of administrators. In state, local officials openly questioned the high cost of some of the hardware including wireless routers which would serve far fewer wireless connections than they were originally built for.

Much of the work on this project has been done by Frontier Communications. Frontier Communications is a telecommunications provider, largely in rural and underserved areas of the country. It picked up a good portion of its rural market share through an acquisition of the markets from Verizon Wireless. Frontier has been one of only a few telcos to take Federal Communications Commission (FCC) dollars from the Connect America Fund to expand rural broadband access, giving the company the capital it needs to deploy networks like the one in West Virginia.

However, the company’s work in the state has been under local and federal scrutiny for the reasons detailed above. Recently, West Virginia released performance-based money to Frontier after it caught up and nearly completed work on the project. Since then, reports have been coming out of the Charleston Gazette that suggest these payouts and the Governors office may have been less than above-board.

Earlier this year, West Virginia was supposed to hold a broadband summit touting the success of the project and possible benefits of broadband to the local economy. That summit was abruptly cancelled after an in-state audit was completed which raised serious questions and criticisms about how the broadband expansion was being handled. At the time, officials said they didn’t want the summit to become a debate on the audit.

Now, a new report from the Gazette has emerged showing that Governor Tomblin stopped a separate broadband audit after ICF, the audit company hired by the Governor issued a blistering memo about the state of the project, and Frontier’s work. At the Governor’s prompting, Frontier provided documentation the auditors said was missing, and conducted their own audit which showed they were acting within the terms of their contract. The ICF report says that the company was “gold plating” broadband sites, installing much more capacity than needed.

Frontier is pushing back against the ICF report, and at the same time the Legislative Auditor which issued the first negative report in February has expanded their audit. The Gazette notes that there may also be some direct family connections between ICF and officials in the Governors office. Watch this space.

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