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Broadband audit to probe communication towers

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Virginia Legislative Auditor's Office has widened its review of the state's use of $126.3 million in federal stimulus funds to expand high-speed Internet.

After revealing in February that the state wasted millions of dollars on oversize Internet routers, auditors now are scrutinizing another part of the project: a $33 million upgrade to West Virginia's emergency communication tower network.

Legislative auditors are combing through more than 900 pages of records that document how the state spent stimulus funds to expand the state's existing 87-tower network -- a project designed to bolster public safety and make Internet available to homes in rural areas. The state has purchased new radio equipment and satellite dishes for existing tower sites, and is building up to 17 new towers.

"Our review of the state's expenditure of the federal broadband grant is ongoing," Legislative Auditor Aaron Allred said Tuesday. "Part one was the routers. Now, we're moving on to other state expenditures."

State officials never solicited bids for the $33 million microwave tower expansion.

Instead, state Homeland Security Director Jimmy Gianato tapped contracts that the Lewis County Commission has with Premier Construction, a Jane Lew contractor, and Aviat Networks, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based company that manufactures microwave radios and equipment.

At the legislative auditor's request, Gianato turned over 954 pages of records last week that detail how Lewis County awarded contracts to Premier, which is building the towers, and Aviat several years ago. Joe Gonzalez, who has a Jane Lew address and coordinates the tower project, reviewed bids for the Lewis County Commission and recommended Premier and Aviat. The state has "piggybacked" on those Lewis County contracts to upgrade the statewide tower network with the stimulus funds.

The improvements are expected to nearly double the network's capacity for voice and data communications. The tower network also will likely link up with a national public safety system called FirstNet.

West Virginia's application for the stimulus funds says commercial telecommunications providers will be able to connect to the tower network for the first time and use the microwave network to serve customers who want high-speed Internet. Some companies, however, have questioned whether the state would keep that promise.

West Virginia's 10-year-old microwave tower system -- called the Statewide Interoperable Radio Network -- is now used exclusively by first responders: police officers, firefighters, 911 operators and paramedics. The towers, located atop mountains and tall buildings, reach as high as 480 feet.

The network allows first responders to use two-way radios to talk with emergency officials anywhere in West Virginia, except for a 100-square-mile area surrounding the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, Pocahontas County. The observatory has strict restrictions against radio use.

Gianato did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

In 2010, West Virginia received a $126.3 million federal grant to expand broadband across the state.

The state is spending $33 million on the towers, and about $43 million to bring high-speed fiber connections to more than 600 "community anchor institutions" -- schools, libraries, health clinics, county courthouses, jails and other government facilities.

Another $8 million from the stimulus grant will pay for equipment and fiber cable that links the Green Bank observatory to West Virginia University.

With the stimulus funds, the state also spent $24 million to purchase high-capacity routers for the public facilities with fiber connections. The state expects to have funds left over after completing the broadband expansion project.

In February, the legislative auditor released a scathing report, finding that the state wasted at least $7.9 million -- and up to $15 million -- in stimulus funds by purchasing oversize routers.

The state installed most of the routers in rural schools and small libraries with only a handful of computer terminals, even though the devices are designed to serve buildings with more than 500 Internet connections.

In March, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin set up a task force and ordered a statewide review of more than 1,000 sites that received routers. Cisco announced that it would provide refunds or exchanges for routers the task force determines the state doesn't need.

Earlier this year, the legislative auditor also asked for records that detail payments to a Colorado consultant the state hired to help manage the $126.3 million broadband project.

In December, the Gazette reported that Verizon consultant Perry Rios was paid $730,000 to supervise the project from his home in Colorado.

The legislative auditor also is poring through reports and memos a consulting firm submitted to the Tomblin administration last year. ICF International found that Tomblin aides and officials in the Manchin administration allowed Frontier Communications to build a 500-mile fragmented fiber network that solely benefits Frontier. ICF concluded the $43 million fiber project has "no practical use for the public or competition."

Frontier has denounced the report, calling it "worthless."

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


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