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$126M broadband project a 'train wreck,' delegate says

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia Homeland Security Director Jimmy Gianato told state lawmakers Monday that a former U.S. Commerce secretary called the state's $126.3 million plan to expand high-speed Internet "one of the best written proposals in the country."

"We have done everything the grant said we would do," Gianato said.

But Delegate Nancy Guthrie, D-Kanawha, has drawn a different conclusion about the broadband project.

"It appears we orchestrated a train wreck," Guthrie said during Monday's joint House-Senate technology committee meeting.

In a nine-page letter delivered to legislators, state officials acknowledged the $126.3 million project was supposed to make high-speed fiber-optic cable available to 1,064 public facilities in West Virginia, but the state used the federal stimulus funds to lay fiber to only 600 sites.

The state also promised to build a 900-mile fiber network, but wound up with 600 miles of fiber, Gale Given, the state's chief technology officer, said Monday. The reason: Many of the sites already had fiber.

Those locations, however, received Internet routers, Given said.  

"I think there is a misconception that we are putting these [routers] in locations without fiber, and that is not the case," she said.

The U.S. Commerce Department's Inspector General and West Virginia Legislative Auditor's office are reviewing the state's use of the $126.3 million in stimulus funds. 

The project was designed to bring high-speed broadband service to 1,064 "community anchor institutions" -- schools, libraries, State Police detachments, health centers, county courthouses, jails, state agencies and other public facilities.

The state also used $24 million of the $126.3 million grant to buy Internet routers for each site. The routers, which cost $22,600 each, were purchased in 2010.

On Monday, Guthrie asked why the state only solicited bids for Cisco routers and not other manufacturers.

State officials said the state used an existing statewide Internet equipment contract, and that vendors only proposed selling Cisco routers. Verizon Business sold the Cisco routers to the state.

Gianato said the federal government required that West Virginia's proposed broadband expansion project be "shovel-ready."

"All of the equipment was bought off contracts that had been competitively bid," he said.

Also Monday, Given said:

* State libraries will soon be able to connect their routers to new fiber lines. Last month, the Gazette reported that 170 libraries hadn't connected to the fiber because they couldn't afford the faster Internet service. Given said Frontier has agreed to bill libraries for upgraded service at the same price they're paying now.

* Seventy State Police detachments also plan to start using the routers. The devices have remained in storage for more than two years because they weren't compatible with the agency's voicemail system. Given said the state plans to spend $90,000 to buy modules that will fix the problem. "We will be able to upgrade that and switch over to the new routers," she said. 

* The Cisco routers were "right sized" for the public facilities. The Gazette has reported that the routers were designed to serve a minimum of 500 Internet connections, but the state has installed the pricey devices at numerous sites with only a handful of computer terminals.

Given defended the state's decision to purchase the same size router for all 1,064 public facilities.

"The team determined that capacity should be provided to permit these community anchor institutions to deploy the applications that were required to meet future needs, not their current needs," Given wrote in her letter to state lawmakers. "It would be a mistake to determine in advance that entities with low bandwidth requirements today will not have high bandwidth requirements in the future. To have shortchanged our smaller, more rural areas would have gone against the entire intent of the program."

The legislative committee plans to ask additional questions at a February interim meeting.

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

 


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