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Broadband grant requests exceed available funds

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Businesses and nonprofit groups have requested a combined $7.2 million in state grants to bring high-speed Internet to West Virginia's most rural areas. 

State Broadband Deployment Council members said Monday that shows there's a growing demand for broadband service across the state. The council plans to distribute $4 million for broadband expansion projects in December.

"There's a pent-up demand," said Lee Fisher, a broadband council member who lives on a farm in Braxton County. "The grant requests exceeded the funds available. Even though some projects might not get funded, this strengthens our case with the governor and Legislature that we need more funding."

As of the middle of last week, not a single company or organization had applied for a council grant. That changed Friday afternoon. The council received 24 applications -- about twice as many as expected.

"All of them seem like solid applications," Fisher said. "They were very professional."

Sixteen companies and organizations requested a combined $5.2 million in state grants to build wireline and wireless broadband networks to homes and businesses in rural areas.

Meanwhile, eight groups requested $1.9 million to promote broadband demand in remote communities where few people have signed up for high-speed Internet, even though broadband is available.

Broadband council Chairman Dan O'Hanlon said the applicant list might shrink. The council plans to reject any incomplete submissions.

"These are just preliminary numbers," O'Hanlon said. "A [council grant review] committee will determine [today] whether the applications are complete. Some may be rejected."

The broadband council plans to post applicant names and project descriptions on the secretary of state's online State Register by Thursday. The council previously decided not to disclose the amount of grant money that each organization requests.

"It will give everyone an opportunity to see what has been proposed, but not the financial information," Fisher said.

Projects that bring broadband service to the largest number of people will receive the highest scores under the council's project evaluation system.

"We had applications from a good cross- section of the state," Fisher said. "We had for-profits and nonprofits applying, as well and for-profit and nonprofit collaborations."

No municipalities or county commissions requested grant funds.

A team of consultants from Pennsylvania-based L.R. Kimball will review the applications and make recommendations.

"They have much more experience and technical expertise than we have on the this," Fisher said. "It will take time to sort through all this stuff."

On Sept. 21, the Broadband Deployment Council will start accepting "competing" grant applications from firms that want to provide high-speed Internet in the same rural areas. Companies will have 60 days to submit competing proposals.

The broadband council plans to take a final vote and award the $4 million at a Dec. 12 meeting.

The state Legislature established the council and allocated the money for broadband expansion projects four years ago. The council's grant program is separate from a $126.3 million federal grant being used to expand high-speed Internet service in West Virginia. The stimulus grant is the subject of a federal inspector general's review.

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

 

 


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