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W.Va. official defends router purchases

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia "taxpayers were best served" by the state's decision to use $24 million in federal stimulus funds to purchase more than 1,000 high-end Internet routers for public facilities, a state official overseeing the spending told federal lawmakers.

Homeland Security Director Jimmy Gianato said West Virginia is building a high-speed Internet network "based on expected future needs," according to a letter Gianato recently sent to two U.S. House Energy and Commerce subcommittee chairmen who are scrutinizing the router purchase. The routers cost $22,600 each. 

"The whole project was designed for the future," Gianato told the Gazette Wednesday.  "It wasn't designed for today's needs. These routers will, hopefully, take us 10 to 12 years into the future."

The state has installed the routers in rural schools, libraries and health clinics, even though the equipment was designed for research universities, medical centers and corporations.

House Republicans have asked Gianato to explain why the state didn't purchase large routers for large facilities, and small ones for locations with only a few computer terminals.

The state purchased 1,064 routers -- all the same model -- in July 2010.

"The consensus was that taxpayers were best served by the use of the unified routers, which given the state's existing administrative resources, would be a more cost-effective approach over the long term in that it facilitates future growth and deployment strategies, configuration management and administration of maintenance and replacement parts," Gianato wrote in a June 28 letter to U.S. Reps. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and John Shimkus, R-Illinois.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's office released Gianato's letter to the Gazette this week.

The state used $24 million from a $126.3 million federal economic stimulus grant to purchase the routers, which funnel data, such as email and web pages, from one network to another.

The Cisco series 3945 routers were built to serve a minimum of 500 users, up to tens of thousands of users. But the state has installed the "enterprise-class" routers at public agencies with only a handful of Internet connections. Seventy percent of the routers wound up in schools and libraries. 

In his letter, Gianato acknowledged that state officials never tried to find out how many computer terminals were housed at each public facility that ultimately received a router.

Gianato said the facilities -- the state calls them "community anchor institutions" -- serve as "hub locations" for the surrounding community.

He told Walden and Shimkus the high-end routers could be used for video conferencing, voice-over-Internet calling, "distance learning," "telemedicine," and other computer applications that require high-speed Internet connections.

"The size of the institution is less relevant than the amount of bandwidth and the number of services that may ultimately be required at that location," Gianato wrote.

In his letter, West Virginia's homeland security chief also disclosed that 383 routers remain in storage -- two years after they were purchased. He expects to ship all of the devices to public facilities by February 2013 -- the deadline for the state to spend the stimulus funds.

As part of the state's broadband expansion project, Frontier Communications also is bringing fiber-optic cable to many of the public facilities. The state has used the stimulus to pay Frontier $1.1 million for its work to date.

The state has spent $56.4 million from the $126.3 million federal grant, said Gianato, who leads the state's three-member stimulus "grant implementation team." 

"The whole concept of the project is to position West Virginia for the future," Gianato said Wednesday. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Walden and Shimkus have asked the Department of Commerce's inspector general to investigate West Virginia's stimulus spending.

At a May hearing on Capitol Hill, the House Republican leaders grilled the Obama administration's telecommunications chief about West Virginia's router purchase.

Earlier this year, West Virginia Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette's office tapped ICF International, a Vienna, Va.-based consulting firm, to examine the state's use of the $126.3 million stimulus grant. The consultants have yet to deliver a report. 

The state's broadband expansion project also includes building 12 microwave towers to improve communication for law enforcement and first responders.

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


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