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Broadband council waiting for grant applicants

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Virginia Broadband Deployment Council has $4 million to distribute, but no takers so far.

The broadband council has set a Friday afternoon deadline for telecommunication companies and nonprofit groups to apply for grants designed to spread high-speed Internet to rural areas. Not a single application was turned in as of late Wednesday.

"We have no applications officially submitted," said Jan Fox, a broadband council member. "Nobody's going to go early."

Council members aren't panicking yet.

Eleven organizations have started filling out applications, according to the council's website, which tracks applications. Thirty-six groups also have registered at the website, but haven't given any indication they'll apply for state funds.

"That's good. That's encouraging," broadband council member Lee Fisher said of the 36 registrations. "I'm hoping we get 50 percent of those [applying]."

The broadband council started accepting grant applications Aug. 14. The council has solicited help from regional planning councils to encourage companies and nonprofit agencies to submit applications.

The council plans to distribute grants to companies that provide broadband coverage to rural communities, or to groups that sponsor initiatives to encourage people to sign up for high-speed Internet.

The state Legislature established the council and allocated the grant money four years ago.

Fisher said he hopes grant requests exceed the $4 million available.

"That will send a signal to the state that there's a need out there," he said.

After Friday's deadline, the council plans to post applicant names and project descriptions on the secretary of state's website. A council committee decided Wednesday that it would not post how much grant funding each applicant requests.

The council plans to reject incomplete applications.

Starting Sept. 21, the Broadband Deployment Council will accept "competing applications" -- filed by groups that want to do the same rural area -- for the next 60 days.

"If an application doesn't come in from an area, they cannot compete," Fisher said.

A team of consultants will rate projects and pass suggestions to the council, which is expected to take a final vote Dec. 12.

At Wednesday's meeting at the state Capitol Complex, Fisher praised telecommunication firms for privately disclosing their plans for expanding broadband coverage in West Virginia in the coming years.

Fisher said the council doesn't want to distribute money in rural areas where a company already plans to bring high-speed Internet service to customers.

"This is going to be real crucial as to whether an application gets approved," Fisher said. "We're going to be able to get down to some specifics about who's going to be connected."

Also Wednesday, Fisher warned that the broadband council hasn't established a system for managing and monitoring projects that receive state broadband grants. The council has no staff members to review invoices and "progress reports," he said.

"We have a looming administrative issue," Fisher said. "I don't want someone turning to the council and pointing a finger and saying, 'Why aren't you on top of this?' This could be a bigger job than anyone has anticipated."

The council will distribute $4 million in grant money through the West Virginia Department of Commerce.

Several council members suggested that the state Development Office could help administer the grants. The council plans to discuss project management options at its Oct. 10 meeting.

The council is accepting grant applications online at www.broadbandgrants.wv.gov until 4:30 p.m. Friday.

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


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