CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia has started testing a $33 million upgrade to its emergency communications tower network -- a project designed to bolster public safety and make Internet available to homes in rural communities.
The two-year project, funded by the federal economic stimulus, expands the state's existing 90-tower network. The improvements are expected to nearly double the network's capacity for voice and data communications. The tower network also will likely link up with a national public safety system.
"You could stand on the steps of the U.S. Capitol and talk to the state Capitol here in West Virginia," said state Homeland Security Director Jimmy Gianato, who helped lead a tour of a tower site atop Malden Mountain last week.
The $33 million is paying for new radio equipment and satellite dishes at existing tower sites, and up to 17 new towers across the state. Workers have finished erecting a dozen towers, with five more expected to be finished within the next two months.
State officials hope to have the expanded tower network up and running by June 30.
"You're going to be able to put much more [information and data] on there on the broadband side," said Joe Gonzalez, communications director with state Office of Emergency Medical Services.
West Virginia's application for the stimulus funds says that commercial telecommunication providers will be able to tap into to the tower network for the first time, and use the microwave network to serve new customers. Some companies have questioned whether the state will keep that promise.
Gale Given, chief technology officer for the state government, said she has investigated regulatory and technical issues and determined that state will allocate the tower network's bandwidth -- up to a third of the network's total capacity -- for commercial use.
The expected result: More West Virginians will have access to high-speed broadband Internet service, according to state officials.
"There will be capacity available for private entities, as outlined in the grant application," Given said. "At the end of the day, there will be private companies on there."
The state Lottery Commission, National Guard, Department of Homeland Security, State Police, hospitals and the state Office of Technology have expressed interest in using the network. Bandwidth also may be set aside for a national public safety project called FirstNet. The federal government hopes to have the $7 billion national network operating by 2016.
West Virginia's microwave tower system is now used exclusively by first responders: police officers, firefighters, 911 operators and paramedics. The existing public safety network is close to reaching its capacity, Given said.