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State broadband grants could go unused

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Virginia Broadband Deployment Council has $1.7 million in grant money to distribute for high-speed Internet expansion projects this year, but only $309,000 in requests.

The council received six grant applications, 18 fewer than last year.

"I'm stunned," council Chairman Dan O'Hanlon said. "This is free money. Our goal was -- and is -- to give all [$1.7 million] away."

For months, the council has worked with regional planning agencies, encouraging companies and nonprofit organizations to apply for state grants.

At meetings last summer, broadband council members said they hoped application requests would exceed available funds. They wanted to show state lawmakers that the council needed more funding for broadband projects. Council members voted to ask Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette to include $5 million more for the broadband board in the commerce department's upcoming budget.

Earlier this year, state lawmakers passed bills designed to increase Internet speeds and encourage people to sign up for broadband service in West Virginia. Council members expected the measures to spur more grant applications this year -- not fewer requests.

Last year, the council had $6 million in grant requests and distributed $2 million for wireless Internet projects.

After a meeting Wednesday, council members said they were at a loss to explain the lack of interest this year.

"I don't know why," O'Hanlon said. "We did it the same way this year as we did it the first time."

To make matters worse, some of the applications don't seem to comply with the council's mission: to expand broadband service and spur demand for high-speed Internet.

For instance, Wyoming and McDowell county economic development groups applied for council funds to create computer applications and online maps about commercial sites and buildings, schools, water and sewer systems, hospitals, railroads and airports.

The Mercer County Sheriff's Department is requesting funds for online maps and police reports so residents can get information about crime in their communities.

Meanwhile, the West Virginia Humanities Council applied for a grant to upgrade its online West Virginia encyclopedia.

The groups must persuade the council that their projects will encourage people to subscribe to high-speed Internet service.

StratusWave Communications, a wireless Internet provider that received council grants last year, submitted the two other grant applications. The company hopes to bring broadband service to Shirley and Alma, two communities in Tyler County.

During the next 60 days, O'Hanlon said other companies and nonprofits would have a chance to submit competing grant proposals in the areas that the six applicants plan to serve. Last year, no organizations submitted competing applications.

Council members plan to award grants at a Dec. 18 meeting.

The Broadband Deployment Council might have to return any leftover funds -- an estimated $1.4 million -- to the state Legislature. Or the group could request grant applications again next year, O'Hanlon said.

The council also may work on other projects, such as helping counties and municipalities improve government websites and "stream" board meetings online. State lawmakers also have asked the broadband council to bolster distance-learning programs.

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


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