CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Obama administration's telecommunications chief has praised West Virginia officials for their decision to spend $24 million in federal stimulus money to buy oversized Internet routers.
The state is installing the routers primarily in rural schools, libraries and health clinics, even though the devices were designed to serve research universities, major medical centers and large corporations.
On Wednesday, U.S. Assistant Commerce Secretary Lawrence Strickling told federal lawmakers that West Virginia's bulk purchase of more than 1,000 "scalable" routers saved the state money.
"Overall, it appears to us, based on a review of the situation, the state made an economical decision that is well justified by the facts," said Strickling, an Obama appointee who also serves as administrator of the National Telecommunications & Information Administration.
Republicans on the Housing Energy and Commerce communications subcommittee weren't buying Strickling's assessment and conclusion.
"As hard as you try, you just can't defend what's going on in West Virginia," said Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill.
Republicans also raised questions about whether Strickling had conducted an independent review of West Virginia's $24 million router purchase.
"It sounds like your agency takes the word of whoever has the grant, and then hands over the money," said subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Oregon. "Let me put it more clearly: You're relying on whatever you're told is going on there."
Shimkus and Walden peppered Strickling with questions about the West Virginia router purchase, citing a Charleston Gazette report about the state's use of the stimulus funds. Several lawmakers brought copies of the newspaper's stories to Wednesday's subcommittee hearing in Washington.
The Gazette has reported that the Cisco 3945 series routers were built to serve a minimum of 500 users and up to tens of thousands of users, but the state has installed the pricey devices in some public facilities with only a few Internet connections.
"Can you tell me what [you're] doing about this and the $24 million in taxpayer money that seems to be wasted here?" Walden asked.
"First off, I would warn everyone, don't believe everything you read in the newspaper," Strickling responded.
Strickling said some of the routers were "going into large facilities like universities and hospitals."
"It's a router necessary to meet the needs of many of the anchor institutions," he said.
However, a state online database shows that no public universities in West Virginia have received the Cisco routers.
In fact, Strickling's agency rejected West Virginia's request for stimulus grant funds to improve high-speed Internet service at the state universities. The West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission had applied for a $45 million grant.
Meanwhile, eight of West Virginia's 62 hospitals have received routers, according to the state database.
The majority of routers -- 650 -- are going to K-12 schools and libraries.