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Broadband conflicts addressed

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Members of a state board poised to distribute $4 million to expand high-speed Internet in West Virginia have potential conflicts of interest because of their ties to organizations and companies seeking the funds.

At least four members of the West Virginia Broadband Council members -- and a member of a committee reviewing applications -- have connections to proposed broadband expansion projects.

The broadband council has assigned an out-of-state consultant -- Edensburg, Pa.-based L.R. Kimball -- to help review and score applications before board members vote to award the $4 million.

"Without Kimball, we could get bound up with these conflicts of interest," said Lee Fisher, a council member who disclosed he has a conflict with at least one project application. "We'll still be able to have a vote, even with all these recusals."

The list of those with conflicts includes broadband council Chairman Dan O'Hanlon, who serves as director of WVNET, a state Internet services agency that plans to team up on a broadband project with Declaration Networks Group of Washington, D.C. Declaration Networks applied for council funds to start a "super Wi-Fi demonstration pilot" project at Marshall University and West Virginia University. The project would tap into unused television spectrum -- or "white space" -- to deliver wireless Internet.

"I'll actually have to step out of the room when it's being discussed," O'Hanlon said Wednesday. "It seems everybody on the council is walking through a minefield."

Jan Fox, chief information officer at Marshall, also likely won't be able to vote on Declaration Network's proposed pilot project with the university in Huntington. Fox serves on the broadband council and heads a special committee that's reviewing applications for the $4 million in state funds.

Don McLaughlin, a WVU professor who's serving on the application review team, also is expected to step aside when the committee votes on whether to recommend Declaration Network's proposed project with WVU to the full council. 

The conflicts don't stop there.

Fisher, a broadband council member from Braxton County, serves as treasurer of the Gilmer-Braxton Research Zone. That group has teamed up with 3WLogic, a Buckhannon-based Internet firm that's applied for broadband council funds to build a 100-foot wireless tower near Newville.

In separate applications, the company also has requested grant money to build additional towers in Tacy, Moatsville and Ellamore. 3WLogic didn't list Fisher's research zone group as a partner on those tower projects, but the company mentioned Fisher's name in the three applications. Fisher said he would recuse himself from discussions and votes on those projects as well.

"I'll have to step away from all of these," he said.

Broadband Council member Dana Waldo, general manager of Frontier Communications, also has a potential conflict.

A Pendleton County-based group called Future Generations has proposed offering discounted broadband service -- provided by Frontier at $9.95 a month -- to rural customers in Mason, McDowell, Pendleton, Logan and Mingo counties.

State lawmakers established the broadband council and set aside the grant money for broadband expansion projects four years ago.

Since then, the council has developed rules for distributing the funds and identified rural areas where affordable high-speed Internet service isn't available.

The broadband council plans to select project winners and distribute the $4 million at a Dec. 12 meeting.

In the meantime, an application review committee is wading through applications with the Pennsylvania-based consulting firm. L.R. Kimball plans to rank the projects from best to worst.

"We have to look at the sustainability of projects, and the prices of projects," Fisher said. "We're working through these to see how they stack up. There's a lot of data, a lot of content.

Fisher said Kimball's assistance helps to take politics out of the selection process.  The state Ethics Commission also has given the green light to the council's process, despite board members' ties with three of the five groups or companies applying for the $4 million.

"It's the fairest and most objective way to do it," Fisher said. "We have to be very careful about keeping ourselves out of any conflict, or even the potential for a conflict of interest."

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


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