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W.Va. ready to weigh broadband projects

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After a four-year wait, the state Broadband Deployment Council will start taking applications next week for $3.3 million in state grant funding set aside for projects that expand high-speed Internet service in rural areas across West Virginia.

In 2008, state lawmakers set up the council and allocated $5 million for broadband expansion projects. The broadband council has since paid an out-of-state consultant $1.7 million, leaving $3.3 million for projects.

On Tuesday, a council member urged planning and economic development officials to spread the word about the grant money. Council members are hoping grant application requests exceed the funds available.

"If we don't have applications for all this money, that's not going to be a good message to send to the governor and Legislature," said Lee Fisher, who serves on the Broadband Deployment Council.

The council has said it would ask state lawmakers for about $5 million a year for broadband projects, if the first funding round proves successful.

Fisher met Tuesday with representatives of West Virginia's 11 regional and planning development councils, which plan to help small businesses and nonprofit groups apply for the state broadband funds. The councils will be paid $90 an hour for their work.

State officials expect to receive about two dozen applications.

Groups must use the grant money to expand broadband infrastructure, including wireless networks, in rural areas. The organizations also may use the funds to encourage consumers to sign up for broadband Internet service.

The state broadband council will accept applications July 25 through Aug. 24, and distribute the $3.3 million at a November meeting.

The council's consultant, L.R. Kimball, will review applications and recommend which projects get funded. Kimball, headquartered in Ebensburg, Pa., has selected about a dozen employees -- whose names won't be disclosed to the public -- to rate projects.

Kimball previously created an interactive computer map of broadband availability in West Virginia. The broadband council will spend about a third of the Legislature's $5 million grant on Kimball's consulting work.

"These are quality people," Fisher said. "For efficiency and fairness, it was important to step outside and have a team of professionals do this."

The application scoring system gives preference to project sponsors who raise matching funds, and those who have partners.

One planning director suggested that the council wait an additional six months -- enough time for the planning agencies to complete "strategic plans" for broadband expansion in the regions they serve.

But Fisher said it's important for the broadband council to distribute the $3.3 million in grant funds before the regular legislative session starts in January.

"I think we're at the point we need to produce something," Fisher said.

He said the grant money is designed to encourage broadband providers to offer Internet service in areas where the companies typically wouldn't. Fisher said he hopes smaller telecommunication firms and nonprofits apply for funds.

"If they don't apply and the big providers do, and the big providers offer up viable projects, those projects will likely be funded," Fisher said during Tuesday's meeting at Marshall University's South Charleston campus. "I do not want this to be a government arm for large providers only."

Fisher said telecommunication companies -- including Frontier Communications -- recently disclosed their specific plans for expanding high-speed Internet in West Virginia.

The information will ensure that the broadband council doesn't allocate grant money for projects in areas where companies already have plans to bring high-speed Internet service.

Frontier and the other firms have signed nondisclosure agreements -- a promise that the information won't be shared publicly -- with the Broadband Deployment Council.

Last year, grant program discussions stalled while council members debated the use of $126.3 million in federal stimulus funds to expand broadband to schools, libraries, state agencies, health-care facilities and public safety offices in West Virginia.

Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have asked the Department of Commerce's inspector general to investigate West Virginia's stimulus spending on the statewide broadband project.

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


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