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Planning agencies refuse to use expensive Internet routers

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Lea Wolfe didn't know what to make of the huge Internet router that arrived unexpectedly at the Region 6 Planning and Development Council's office in Marion County last September.

The economic development agency hadn't ordered it. Nobody notified her office it would be receiving the equipment.

So she called UPS and shipped the router back to the state Office of Technology in Charleston.

"We didn't need it," Wolfe said of the $22,600 device, which the state purchased with federal stimulus funds. "It's much bigger than anything we need."

Days later, the router showed up again at Region 6's office. State officials had sent it back. They told Wolfe that the regional planning council needed the router -- that the agency must use it.

"It's now in the hallway under a table covered with papers," Wolfe said. "I have a $22,000 router that's collecting dust."

The Region 6 Council's stimulus-funded router isn't the only one collecting dust.

West Virginia has spent more than $450,000 from a $126.3 million federal stimulus grant to purchase routers and lay fiber to 10 of the state's 11 regional planning offices. However, not a single regional agency has opted to use the routers or connect to the fiber, according to planning council executives.

"Everybody's got them sitting off to the side," Wolfe said. "We don't know what to do with them. We never asked for them."

 

'It was something we couldn't use'

Nobody from the state asked whether the regional planning councils wanted fiber-optic Internet connections. Nobody picked up the telephone and gave the councils a call, agency officials said.

"It was something we couldn't use," said Jim Hall, executive director of the Region 6 Council in Fairmont. "We didn't want to be responsible for such an expensive piece of equipment."

Nonetheless, the state shipped routers to 10 of West Virginia's 11 planning councils. So far, Frontier has installed high-speed fiber-optic cable to six planning council offices, with plans to run fiber to the remaining four agencies by the end of the year.

The state's website for tracking the federal stimulus project lists the six regional planning councils as "100 percent complete."

"I'm not aware of any councils that are using the fiber," said Jim Mylott, executive director of the West Virginia Association of Regional Planning and Development Councils.

Planning council administrators said their agencies now pay $80 to $100 per month for broadband DSL service. They said the fiber connection could cost twice that -- or more. Additionally, the agencies can't afford to pay someone to install the routers, the administrators said.

The council executives said their existing Internet service works just fine. Most regional planning councils have eight or fewer employees.

"We told [the Office of Technology] we're just a small office," Hall recalled. "This router was too big for our office, so we sent it back."

The Gazette-Mail has reported that the "enterprise-class" routers were designed to serve a minimum of 500 users or Internet connections, up to tens of thousands of users.

"We thought someone else maybe could make better use of it," Hall said. "Maybe a university or some place like that."

At the Region 5 Council office in Parkersburg, two engineers from the Office of Technology stopped by the agency to inspect the unused router and fiber connection earlier this year, said Mylott, who also serves as the agency's director. They left without installing the router.

"We're still waiting for them to hook it up," Mylott said. "This is a major project. I figure we're not at the top of the list."

In 2010, West Virginia was awarded a $126.3 million federal stimulus grant to expand high-speed Internet across the state. The planning councils are among 1,064 public facilities receiving routers and fiber. The state purchased routers for each site - at a total cost of $24 million.

Later this year, the state will start sending technicians to agencies that can't afford to install the routers on their own, said West Virginia homeland security chief Jimmy Gianato, who heads the $126.3 million project.

The state purchased the routers two years ago -- in July 2010.

"A lot of these agencies don't have [information technology] staff," Gianato said last week. "We're going to make sure we get out there to get the routers programmed and everything running. We're going to reach out to help these folks."

 

A W.Va. router was sent to Ohio

The state shipped a $22,600 router to the Region 11 Planning and Development Council last year, but later forced the agency to surrender the device, records show

The reason: Region 11's office isn't in West Virginia. It's in Ohio.

For nearly two years, the Region 11 Council, which serves Brooke and Hancock counties, was on the state's list of public agencies scheduled to receive a router and fiber. The council listed a post office box address in Weirton. The Office of Technology shipped a $22,600 router to the agency.

But the council's office wasn't in Weirton, state officials discovered. The agency operates out of Steubenville, Ohio.

The Region 11 Council -- now known as the Brooke, Hancock, Jefferson Metropolitan Planning Commission -- serves Jefferson County, Ohio.

After West Virginia officials realized they had sent a router to Ohio, they dispatched an Office of Technology technician to Steubenville to get the device and return it to Charleston last winter.

State officials also scrapped plans to run fiber to Region 11's Ohio office. The economic development agency has since been officially removed from West Virginia's list of public agencies scheduled to benefit from the federal stimulus project. It's the only regional planning council that won't get a router and fiber.

"The footprint for the grant is the state of West Virginia," said Gianato, who heads the state's broadband grant implementation team. "It had to be within the borders of West Virginia. We had to get that router back in our possession."

Region 11 executive director John Brown did not return several phone calls seeking comment last week.

Gianato said the state would reassign Region 11's router to another public agency.

 

'This is such a waste of funds'

So what does a regional planning agency do with a $22,600 router it doesn't want?

"I asked if I could sell it," said Wolfe, the Region 6 executive, who called the state technology office about the unused, oversized router. "They said, 'No. It's the property of the state of West Virginia.' "

Region 6 has seven employees, seven computers. The agency's existing router cost $200.

"They could have gotten us a $200 router, and we would have been perfectly happy," Wolfe said.

The agency pays $82.30 a month for broadband. Using the office's new fiber connection could cost five times as much, Wolfe said.

"They say we'll be a lot faster, but we're not having any problems now," she said. "We don't need anything faster."

Region 6 employees have yet to remove the router from the cardboard box it was shipped in. They have no plans to set it up.

"This thing is huge," Wolfe said. "This router is tremendous. It could do a giant factory."

State officials should have consulted with the planning councils, asked whether they needed routers and fiber connections, she said. Instead, the devices wound up on the agencies' doorsteps without explanation or instructions.

A one-page letter, tucked in the router box, notified public agencies that they had been selected as "anchor tenants" and would receive broadband through a fiber cable. But the form letter mentions nothing about the router.

"Whoever is behind this, they should be penalized," Wolfe said. "They should be reprimanded. They don't know what they're doing.

"We're fighting every day for money and grants to bring water and sewer to places, and they go out and spend $22,000 on giant routers. This is such a waste of funds."

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

Coming Monday: The federal stimulus paid to bring high-speed fiber to an empty building in Cabell County.


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