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Stimulus routers being shipped to higher ed sites

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After being sharply criticized for installing high-capacity Internet routers at smaller public facilities, state officials overseeing West Virginia's $126.3 million high-speed broadband expansion project have started to ship many of the devices to universities and community colleges, according to a report.

Nearly half of the 100 routers recently distributed from the state's router stockpile went to higher education institutions and affiliated research centers. Marshall University alone picked up 20 routers, with plans to install them primarily at medical facilities.

"Many institutions are afraid to accept these routers in fear of possible negative PR," said Jan Fox, Marshall's chief information officer, in an email to the Gazette. "What an even bigger tragedy to the [broadband project] issue if the locations that really need these devices will not accept the transfer."

In February, the West Virginia Legislative Auditor released a report that found state government officials wasted at least $7.9 million -- and up to $15 million -- by purchasing oversized Internet routers with federal stimulus funds.

The state installed most of the high-capacity routers at small libraries and rural schools, even though the router manufacturer, Cisco, recommends the devices for college campuses and large businesses. In response to the audit, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin ordered a review of more than 1,000 sites that received routers, which cost $22,600 each. That review is ongoing.

When the state first started distributing routers in late 2010, West Virginia universities and community colleges were left off the list of locations scheduled to receive the high-priced devices. But now the state is sending the routers to numerous higher education institutions, according to West Virginia's latest report to the federal agency funding the state's $126.3 million project. 

Community and technical colleges, which became independent from their four-year college affiliates several years ago, recently received about two-dozen routers. The two-year colleges are installing the routers at their main campuses, and at branch campuses located at high schools.

"When they split from their colleges, they needed to completely rebuild their information technology infrastructure," said Dan O'Hanlon, executive director of WVNET, the state's Internet services provider. "Not only did most colleges ask for a couple of routers to replace old ones, almost every community and technical college needed all new routers for every site, and most have multiple locations."

West Virginia University, Glenville State College and Concord University also requested and received routers.

In 2010, the state Higher Education Policy Commission, which oversees public colleges in West Virginia, applied for $67 million in federal stimulus funds to create a high-speed Internet network that would connect all universities, community colleges and affiliated nonprofit research centers across the state. The proposed project included new routers for the sites. The federal government rejected the policy commission's funding request.

That same year, however, West Virginia received a $126.3 million grant for a separate project designed to expand high-speed Internet at "community anchor institutions" -- schools, libraries, health centers, jails, county courthouses, planning agencies, 911 centers and other public facilities. The state used $24 million of the $126.3 million to purchase 1,064 routers.

In recent months, state officials have struggled to find places to put the routers, and about 70 remain unassigned.

West Virginia's universities and community colleges, however, have helped whittle down the state's router inventory.

At Marshall, technicians are replacing old Cisco series 2800 and 3750 series routers with the new Cisco 3945 series routers paid for by the stimulus. Sites receiving routers include the university's medical education building, two pediatric medical centers and plastic and eye surgery centers.

Fox, who also serves on the West Virginia Broadband Deployment Council, said having "common routers provides a more standard and robust network."

"These are not luxuries, but devices that maintain the medical, academic, research and administrative arms of our campus," Fox said. "It would be a shame to let these devices go to waste when we have such great institutional and community needs in higher education." Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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