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Firm to audit W.Va. broadband stimulus spending

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A consulting firm has been tapped to review how state officials are spending more than $126 million in federal economic stimulus funds to expand high-speed Internet in West Virginia, state Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette said Monday.

"At the end of the day, I suspect we've made some mistakes," Burdette said. "I'm reading stuff in your stories and learning stuff in the process."

Earlier this week, the Gazette reported that the state of West Virginia is using $24 million in stimulus money to put more than 1,000 high-powered Internet routers in small libraries, elementary schools and health clinics, even though the equipment is designed to serve major research universities, medical centers and large corporations.

The routers cost $22,600 each.

"If those routers are bigger than we need, then we need to figure out what do we do about it," Burdette said. "Where do we go from here? Let's figure out how we can use them."

In March, the state Department of Commerce hired Fairfax, Va.-based ICF International to analyze West Virginia's existing broadband infrastructure and to provide advice to Burdette and the governor's office.

ICF's assignment has been expanded to include a review of the $126.3 million federal stimulus grant, Burdette said. The review is expected to include a financial audit. 

"We need guidance from folks who aren't trying to sell us something," Burdette said.

Burdette said he doesn't want the consultants to point fingers and dwell on past decisions. 

Instead, Burdette said ICF's consultants would be asked to provide a roadmap to help the state maximize the stimulus money and improve broadband access across West Virginia.

"I don't want to spend a lot of time on things we cannot change," Burdette said. "If we made mistakes, then we need to look at how do we take lemons and make lemonade."

In March 2010, the state received a $126 million federal stimulus grant to bring fiber optic cable to schools, libraries, health-care facilities, state police detachment, 911 dispatch centers, county courthouses, jails and libraries. It was the largest federal broadband award given to any state.

"The grant application was put together in record time," Burdette said. "I don't know if the decisions were the right ones or the wrong ones. I want somebody to come in and say, 'This is what has taken place and this is what we should do.' "

The state purchased the Cisco series 3945 routers in July 2010, even though a state Office of Technology administrator warned that the pricey devices "may be grossly oversized," according to an email obtained by the Gazette. Department of Education and Library Commission officials also raised questions about the size of the routers.

Burdette said, in hindsight, state officials should have hired a consultant before purchasing equipment and starting the broadband expansion project.

"If we had an independent consultant to help us with our decisions at the very beginning, we'd all be smarter," Burdette said. "We probably should have had someone like ICF at the front end."

Burdette said ICF is expected to issue a report about West Virginia's use of the $126.3 million grant in 30 to 90 days. The state must finish the broadband expansion project by February 2013 or risk losing unspent funds.

"This thing is pretty far down the pike," Burdette said. "If there are things we need to do, we need to know pretty quickly. At the same time, we want a thorough review."

At a meeting last summer, West Virginia Broadband Deployment Council members learned that the state could have $30 million to $40 million in leftover stimulus funds.

If that happens, ICF would likely recommend how the state could use the unspent funds -- and not have to return the grant money to the federal government, Burdette said. 

"If money is left over, where are we going to put the money?" he said. "Hopefully, they're going to help guide us."

The Gazette also reported this week that the state has 366 unused routers in storage -- nearly two years after purchasing them. The state hasn't found a place to put about half of those routers. The devices direct data, such as email and web pages, from one computer network to another.

State officials have said they will find a home for every router by the time the stimulus grant expires.

The Cisco routers are designed to serve up to "tens of thousands" of users or device connections. Yet state officials have directed the installation of the stimulus-funded routers in West Virginia schools with fewer than a dozen computers and libraries that have only a single computer terminal for patrons.

State Homeland Security chief Jimmy Gianato, who heads West Virginia's broadband project team, has defended the router purchase, saying the equipment will meet the West Virginia's technology demands well into the future.

Burdette noted that the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, which oversees broadband spending, has previously reviewed and approved West Virginia's equipment purchases under the federal stimulus grant.

"This grant was big and complicated," Burdette said. "The bottom line is we're going to catch up real quick now that we've got the consultants on board."

ICF opened a West Virginia office in Charleston in 2009.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.

 


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