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Group to host summit on rural broadband

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A nonprofit group will host a statewide broadband summit on Thursday, after Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's administration canceled plans for a similar conference earlier this year.

The Central Appalachia Regional Network has invited speakers from West Virginia and other states to talk about programs and policies designed to bring affordable, high-speed Internet to homes and businesses in rural communities.

The conference will take place from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday at the Charleston Marriott Town Center -- the same hotel where the state had planned to hold its broadband summit.

Organizers of Thursday's conference said they had talked about holding a broadband summit before the state pulled the plug on its event.

"We're trying to answer the question of where we are as it relates to broadband, and where do we want to go to, and how do we get there," said the Rev. James Patterson, president of the Partnership of African American Churches, a group affiliated with CARN.

The state Department of Commerce had planned to hold a broadband conference in late March, but Tomblin's office abruptly canceled the event, citing ongoing scrutiny of West Virginia's use of a $126.3 million federal stimulus grant to expand high-speed Internet.

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

The conference's organizers, who included state employees now scheduled to speak at Thursday's seminar, planned to spotlight successful broadband projects and a mapping program that shows where high-speed Internet is available in West Virginia.

But Tomblin officials said they worried that criticism of the $126.3 million stimulus project would overshadow the planned March conference.

In February, the state legislative auditor released a scathing report about the government's decision to purchase more than 1,000 high-capacity Internet routers. Auditors found that state officials wasted at least $7.9 million -- and up to $15 million -- in stimulus funds by purchasing oversized routers.

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 that have only a handful of connections.

State officials have said they hope to reschedule their broadband summit, but they haven't done so.

Thursday's conference does not include speakers or panelists who plan to specifically discuss the routers or the state's use of the $126.3 million federal grant.

"We did not want to spend eight hours discussing something we have no control of," said Paul Miller, a CARN consultant who plans to talk about innovative broad policies passed in other states. "It may come up, but we didn't want it to be the focus of the summit."

Other speakers include Dan O'Hanlon, chairman of the West Virginia Broadband Deployment Council; Edyael Casaperalta, a researcher with the Center for Rural Strategies; Tony Simental, West Virginia GIS coordinator; and Herb Smith, broadband director for the city of Philippi.

O'Hanlon plans to talk about the Broadband Deployment Council's grant program, while Casaperalta will outline telecommunications issues in rural areas.

Simental plans to spotlight broadband plans being developed by regional development agencies.

Smith will discuss Phillipi's city-owned broadband network.

"This is an example of how broadband service can work in the absence of a private-sector model," Miller said.

The Central Appalachia Regional Network, which is based in Huntington, serves Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

In April, the group issued a report, recommending that states regulate broadband service, fund projects and develop policies to expand and market high-speed Internet to low-income households.

"We're trying to collect a consensus and move the state forward in terms of broadband," Patterson said. "Hopefully, we can do something productive that's in the best interests of the citizens. Rural people tend to be excluded unless something is done to remedy the situation and make sure they're not."

To register for Thursday's conference, visit www.carnnet.org. There's no fee to attend, and lunch will be provided.

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


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