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W.Va. 'broadband summit' postponed amid router review

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's administration has abruptly cancelled a statewide "broadband summit," citing ongoing scrutiny of West Virginia's use of a $126.3 million federal stimulus grant to expand high-speed Internet.

In late February, the Department of Commerce sent an email "blast" about the conference to about 800 people. U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin planned to speak at the event. A conference website page was created, and postcard invitations were sent out.

Eight days later, though, Commerce officials distributed a second email, saying, "The broadband summit is postponed until a later date. Watch this site for future information, dates and locations."

"There were scheduling issues," said Tomblin chief of staff Rob Alsop, who declined to elaborate. "It will be rescheduled."

Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette provided a more detailed explanation last week.

"It's supposed to be a technical discussion of broadband in the state, and not a discussion about the [$126.3 million broadband] grant," Burdette said. "We didn't want the two confused."

Last month, the state Legislative Auditor released a scathing report about the government's decision to use the stimulus funds to purchase oversized Internet routers. The audit followed a series of reports in the Gazette-Mail about the $24 million router purchase.

The $22,600 machines were designed to serve a minimum of 500 Internet connections, but the state installed the pricey equipment in small schools and libraries with only a handful of computer terminals.

The legislative audit found that the government wasted at least $7.9 million -- and up to $15 million -- in stimulus funds by buying the high-capacity routers. Legislative Auditor Aaron Allred was not invited to the broadband conference.

Tomblin recently announced plans to set up a task force and review more than 1,000 sites that received routers. The review is expected to take months.

"We didn't want people showing up at the summit and thinking there was going to be a discussion about routers and the [broadband] project," Burdette said.

The cancelled broadband summit -- titled "West Virginia Broadband: Investing in the Future"-- was scheduled for March 27 to 29 at the Charleston Marriott Town Center.

Conference organizers planned to spotlight successful broadband projects and a mapping program that shows where high-speed Internet is available in West Virginia.

Panels were scheduled to discuss broadband policy, public safety, economic development, digital learning and "e-government."

Commerce officials sent invitations to telecommunications providers, city and county government officials, school boards, economic development agencies and developers. Companies also were invited to set up exhibit booths for a $1,000 fee.

"Experts will have the opportunity to update those in attendance on the status of broadband in West Virginia and showcase what others are doing to access broadband in their areas," the invitation says.

Lee Fisher, who serves on the West Virginia Broadband Deployment Council, said he never received an invitation to the event. He said he would have attended.

"It would be an excellent opportunity for the state," Fisher said. "Technology has climbed so much in the state, along with efforts by providers to bring broadband to places that never had it before."

Manchin's office recently called the Gazette-Mail, saying the senator planned to attend the broadband summit.

In late February, Manchin was quoted on the MetroNews website saying he planned to speak about the $126.3 million broadband expansion at last week's Broadband Deployment Council meeting. As West Virginia's governor, Manchin helped secure the stimulus funds, and his administration started the project in 2010. Manchin has defended his former aides' decision to purchase the $22,600 routers.

Last week, a Manchin spokesman said the senator meant to say he would be speaking at the statewide broadband summit, not at the council meeting. Manchin was scheduled as the keynote speaker on March 27.

The state is using the stimulus funds to install high-speed fiber-optic cable to about 600 "community anchor institutions" -- schools, libraries, jails, health centers, county courthouses, planning agencies, 911 centers, State Police detachments and other public facilities. Frontier Communications is being paid about $40 million for fiber construction.

The routers -- more than 1,100 -- cost $24 million and are being installed at those 600 sites and another 500 locations that already have fiber.

The state also is spending the stimulus funds on expanding an emergency communications tower network and to provide fiber service to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory at Green Bank.

Burdette said it was his decision to postpone the broadband conference. He said he hasn't selected a new date for the event.

"It will be rescheduled," Burdette said. "We will be doing that. I assure you, it's going to be rescheduled."

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


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