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Broadband council forbidden to talk about project

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia Broadband Deployment Council members want to talk about the biggest broadband development project in state history, but the governor's office won't allow it.

Last week, council member Lee Fisher asked whether the governor-appointed group could have a "meaningful discussion" at today's meeting about how broadband providers will access the state's new high-speed Internet network -- a project paid for with $126.3 million in federal stimulus funds.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's chief of staff, Rob Alsop, who serves on the council, denied Fishers' request, citing a 2010 attorney general's opinion.

"The federal funding mandates that the [broadband] infrastructure put in place have open access," Fisher said Tuesday. "I think the council has an obligation to see how that's going to play out."

In an email to Fisher last week, Alsop noted that former Attorney General Darrell McGraw's office concluded that the Broadband Deployment Council has no right to oversee West Virginia's $126.3 million broadband project, even though the state has no other board charged with handling broadband issues.

"I do not believe the [council] is the appropriate forum for discussions on oversight on the [broadband] grant," Alsop wrote to Fisher. Alsop said Tomblin plans to form a task force to "make sure we use the [broadband] to its fullest potential."

"That would be a more appropriate forum where state officials will talk about the grant and how the state will be moving forward," Alsop told Fisher in an email last week.

Alsop reiterated his promise Tuesday.

"We fully intend to comply with the federal requirement relating to open access," he said. "As I mentioned in my emails, at the appropriate time, we'll be happy to discuss it."

Council members and others have raised questions -- though not at public meetings -- about the accessibility of the state's new 500-mile broadband network.

Under the project, more than 630 "community anchor institutions" -- schools, libraries, jails, health centers, county courthouses, planning agencies and other government facilities -- are receiving fiber cable that will speed up their Internet connections.

State officials overseeing the stimulus project have said West Virginia is building an "open-access" network that broadband providers across the state could tap into. The federal government required that the state's network be open.

State officials predicted that the broadband companies would sign "interconnection agreements" with Frontier Communications, which has the contract to build the fiber network.

The network is nearly finished, and not a single agreement has been signed.

A consultant hired by Tomblin's office alleged that Frontier, with the state's blessing, is building a private network that shuts out competitors. In its report, ICF International found that the state created an "unintended monopoly" and "unusable network except for Frontier."

Tomblin's administration kept the report under wraps for months, refusing to release it to the Gazette. The newspaper obtained a copy independently in late March.

Frontier has skewered ICF's conclusions and called the consultant's report "worthless."

The Broadband Deployment Council distributed $2.05 million in state grants for broadband expansion projects last year, with plans to give out another $2 million this year.

Fisher said current grant recipients and companies that plan to apply for state funds want to know whether their broadband projects could connect to the stimulus-funded statewide fiber network.

"The question has been asked," Fisher said. "It's going to be asked again. This whole process needs to be transparent."

Fisher said he plans to raise the issue again at today's Broadband Council meeting in Charleston.

Alsop said the governor's office plans to set up procedures for companies that want to tap into the broadband network and sign agreements with Frontier.

"Any applicant that wants to do that will be able to do that through the state," Alsop said. "We'll be happy to hear their questions and work with them on any issues."

This isn't the first time Broadband Council members have asked about the state's $126.3 million broadband expansion project.

At previous meetings, council member Jim Martin, president of Bridgeport-based Citynet, has requested engineering maps that show where Frontier has built fiber. Neither Frontier nor the state has turned over the maps.

West Virginia Homeland Security Director Jimmy Gianato, who oversees the $126.3 million grant, stopped attending council meetings earlier this year after the Gazette and others started asking questions about the project.

In March, the Legislative Auditor released a scathing report about how part of the $126.3 million was spent. Auditors found the state wasted at least $7.9 million -- and up to $15 million -- on oversized Internet routers that the state is hooking up to Frontier's 500-mile fiber network.

Broadband Deployment Council members have never discussed the legislative audit or ICF's report at their public meetings.

In 2010, McGraw's office told council members that they could have no say over the $126.3 million project because the council wasn't awarded the stimulus funds. The grant went directly to the governor's office -- under former Gov. Joe Manchin.

"The council lacks the authority to compel, restrict or otherwise control the office of the executive and the administration of the grant," McGraw's office concluded.

West Virginia received the single largest stimulus grant to expand broadband in the U.S.

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

 


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