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Frontier gets a break after mail mix-up

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Virginia Office of Technology will consider using federal stimulus money to fund an $8.3 million Webster County broadband expansion project suggested by Frontier Communications, even though the company missed a deadline last week to submit the proposal.

Frontier seems to have a good excuse for its late submission.

The state sent its request for project ideas to a Frontier retail store in Ranson, Jefferson County -- not to Frontier's headquarters in Charleston.

"We don't normally receive communications to our headquarters through our retail store in Ranson," said Dan Page, a Frontier spokesman.

Earlier this month, the technology office solicited proposals for spending an estimated $9 million left over from a $126.3 million stimulus grant designed to expand high-speed Internet service in West Virginia.

The state must spend the entire grant amount by Feb. 13 -- or risk having to return unspent funds.

Last week, five companies and a state agency submitted project proposals -- everything from a $5 million wireless Internet expansion in central West Virginia to a $1.1 million tour bus that would travel the state to spread the word about the benefits of broadband.

Late last week, Frontier General Manager Dana Waldo sent a letter to the state Department of Administration, saying the company didn't find out about the state's request for broadband project ideas until Oct. 9 -- the last day to submit proposals. That same day, the Gazette also published a story about the state's plans to spend the $9 million in leftover grant funds.

State officials acknowledged this week that the Office of Technology's written request for project ideas was mistakenly sent to Frontier's retail store. The technology office gave the Ranson address to the state Purchasing Division, which mailed the letter to the retail shop.

"As part of normal practice, agencies may send the Purchasing Division a suggested listing of vendors who may be interested in a particular request," said Diane Holley-Brown, spokeswoman for the Department of Administration. "Frontier Communications out of Ranson was listed as one of the suggested vendors and was sent the request."

The vendor list included Citynet, Suddenlink, AT&T, Stratuswave and Alltel.

The state's online purchasing bulletin board posted the request for project ideas twice -- on Sept. 28 and Oct. 5, Holley-Brown said. Frontier executives apparently did not see the postings.

Frontier hopes to use the $8.3 million in stimulus funds to extend fiber-optic cable to 3,700 homes in Webster Springs, Cowen and Hacker Valley. The Webster County residences would have some of the fastest Internet speeds in the state. The project would cost $2,200 per home.

"It would greatly benefit the citizens in these rural communities with bandwidth to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities, continuing education, and strengthening these communities to compete in the global economy," Waldo wrote in a letter to the state.

Waldo added, "This project is even more unique because these rural areas generally lack the thriving business communities in most metropolitan areas."

Frontier's project, unlike other competing proposals, makes job promises.

If the Webster County project gets funded, Frontier will retain 90 technicians and engineering assistants whose contracts are set to expire Dec. 31, Waldo said. He sent a copy of the letter to Elaine Harris, an executive with the Communications Workers of America union, which represents Frontier employees in West Virginia.

Holley-Brown said the technology office would review Frontier's project, despite the missed deadline. Frontier is West Virginia's largest telecommunications company.

"The Office of Technology is currently reviewing all suggestions to determine which ideas meet the scope of the grant guidelines," she said. ". . . All ideas will be considered."

A committee will review the project ideas and submit recommended proposals to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's office. The winning projects will be forwarded to the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, which oversees the state's grant money, for approval.

West Virginia is using the bulk of the $126.3 million stimulus grant to bring high-speed fiber to more than 1,000 "community anchor institutions" -- schools, libraries, health centers, State Police detachments, 911 centers, county courthouses and state agencies. Frontier secured the contract to install the fiber.

The state initially planned to build 2,400 miles of fiber, but scaled back the project significantly. Frontier now expects to complete 550 miles of fiber.

The U.S. Department of Commerce's inspector general is reviewing the state's use of the stimulus funds.

Frontier would have to finish the Webster County project by Jan. 31, according to the Office of Technology's written request for proposals. Because of the short timeline, no other companies that applied for the $9 million in leftover funds proposed building a fiber network.

Waldo said Thursday that Frontier could complete the Webster County project by Jan. 31 by stringing fiber atop existing telephone poles. That would eliminate the need for time-consuming environmental assessments.

"We're willing to commit the necessary resources through our partnership with the Communications Workers of America," Waldo said.

The specifications for using the $9 million also require the construction of "middle-mile" fiber projects that other telecommunications companies could tap into, and that connect one rural community to another. Frontier's proposal appears to be a "last-mile" project -- one that builds fiber from an Internet provider directly to customers.

Waldo said West Virginia's $126.3 million broadband grant could be modified to include Frontier's proposed project, "including any necessary changes to allow us to implement it within [federal] guidelines."

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


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