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W.Va. broadband effort narrowed

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A $126.3 million federal stimulus project was intended to bring high-speed fiber-optic Internet connections to public facilities across West Virginia, but state officials are now mostly selecting sites that already have fiber and delivering routers instead.

Last week, the state designated 175 new sites as "community anchor institutions" that will receive upgraded Internet service. Only seven of those sites will get high-speed fiber cable. All facilities will get new routers.

"Due to the amount of time required for environmental assessments and fiber builds, we determined that we would limit most of the additional sites to 'router-only' so that we could complete the build on time," said Diane Holley-Brown, a spokeswoman for the state Office of Technology.

Two years ago, former Gov. Joe Manchin's administration promised to use the federal stimulus money to build fiber at 1,064 community anchors -- schools, libraries, health centers, State Police detachments, county courthouses, 911 centers and other public agencies, according to the state's grant application.

But the state is on pace to bring high-speed fiber to just 639 of those 1,064 public facilities. The remaining sites will only get routers, according to a Dec. 21 project report.

Among schools, the state has designated 530 buildings that will receive upgraded Internet service funded by the stimulus. Of those, 60 percent will only get routers because the facilities already have fiber, records show.

The state faces a Jan. 31 deadline to complete the project, but has since asked the federal government for an extension through Sept. 30.

The state's grant application spotlights plans to bring fiber to public facilities, but mentions little about Internet routers, other than to say routing equipment will be purchased to funnel data from the new fiber lines.

In July 2010, the state used $24 million of the $126.3 million in stimulus funds to purchase 1,064 Cisco Internet routers for public facilities.

The state bought the routers without first ensuring there were a sufficient number of places to put them. It turned out many of the designated sites already had fiber and suitable routers.

"In addition, there have been closures, relocations and other changes that have eliminated locations," Holley-Brown said.

The miscalculation sent state officials scurrying to find "replacement sites" for the orphan routers.

The latest list of 175 replacement sites includes mostly schools, community and technical colleges, and Marshall University, which will receive 10 routers for buildings on its Huntington campus.

Holley-Brown said the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, the federal agency overseeing the grant funds, has approved West Virginia's plans to pick sites that already have fiber and deliver routers to them.

"The grant application stated that fiber and connectivity would be provided to 1,064 community anchor institutions," she said. "During the implementation process, it was determined that some of these locations already have fiber so only a router was provided. NTIA is aware and supportive of this implementation."

The U.S. Department of Commerce's Inspector General and West Virginia Legislative Auditor are reviewing the router purchase.

Last July, senior aides to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin predicted that the majority of replacement sites would get fiber and routers. But the state isn't expected to bring fiber to additional public facilities, even if the federal government extends the project's completion deadline to Sept. 30.

The reason: Nearly all of the $126.3 million has been spent.

"The state will consider the concept of identifying community anchor institution sites that need routers and fiber along with other proposals that are under considerations for use of the remaining funds," Holley-Brown said. "A final decision on the use of those [leftover] funds has not yet been made."

About 30 of the routers remain without a designated home, but state officials plan to find a place for the equipment within the next several weeks. Verizon, the company that sold the Cisco routers to the state, provided 100 extra routers at no extra cost.

"We have a number of routers to place and are working to determine the best locations," Holley-Brown said.

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


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