CLAY, W.Va. -- Librarian Sheila Thorne wishes the 10 computers at the Clay County Public Library wouldn't bog down during busy afternoons, but it's not like the slow Internet speeds can be blamed on a shortage of new technology.
There's a new $7,800 high-speed fiber connection in the library's basement -- enough capacity to serve dozens of libraries. And there's a $22,600 Internet router capable of serving hundreds of computers.
But the Clay County library isn't using the technology -- paid for by the federal stimulus. It costs too much.
Technicians installed the lightning-fast fiber cable and high-powered router a year ago, but the library continues to use a slow and antiquated T1 Internet connection instead. The fiber is hundreds of times faster than the T1 line.
"Everything's connected, ready to go, but the fiber isn't turned on," Thorne said. "They're trying to figure out who's paying for what, and we're just waiting for whatever they decide to do."
Across West Virginia, more than 160 libraries have new routers and fiber connections, but the fiber sits coiled up, unused, shut off.
Nobody has stepped up to shoulder the blame for the snafu -- an apparent combination of project mismanagement, poor planning and bureaucratic bungling.
The West Virginia Library Commission, which oversees telecommunications for most libraries in the state, can't afford to pay for fiber Internet service under an existing statewide contract.
"We're frustrated," said Karen Goff, secretary of the Library Commission. "We can't pay for fiber without a new state contract."
The Library Commission requires a contract change to comply with the federal government's "e-rate" program. The Federal Communication Commission program helps libraries and schools pay for technology at discounted rates.
States must pay costs up front, and they get reimbursed 75 cents for every dollar spent. In West Virginia, the Library Commission pays $960,000 a year for Internet service at libraries.
Because of the new fiber connections, the libraries must negotiate a new e-rate reimbursement agreement with the feds, a process that can take up to 18 months.
The commission started its application, but can't finish it without a new statewide contract. (The Kanawha County Public Library system handles its own technology on a separate contract, and is using the routers and fiber).
"Without e-rate, we couldn't pay for telecommunications in our libraries," Goff said.
Gale Given, chief technology officer for West Virginia, acknowledged the fiber price problem.
"The libraries could connect to the fiber, but they can't increase capacity right now because they can't afford it," Given said. "The circuits cost more than the libraries have in their budget."
Given, who inherited the problem when she was hired as CTO in June, said the complexity of the federal e-rate program and contract issues likely led to the year-plus delay in wiring libraries to fiber.
"They did recognize libraries wanted discounted rates, but I'm not sure there was an understanding of all these moving parts until recently," she said. "I wish it was easy, but it's not."
Given has a possible fix. She has contacted Frontier Communications, which is building the fiber network, and the company has agreed to provide discounted rates. The state hopes to issue a change order to its existing statewide Internet services contract to reflect lower rates.
"We have to ensure the change is done in such a way as to comply with e-rate requirements," Given said. "Otherwise, the circuits would not qualify for the federal reimbursement. We hope to have this completed in early 2013."
Meantime, the 160 libraries are using the high-capacity routers with the slow T1 Internet connections. It's sort of like owning a Ferrari sports car and never driving it faster than 15 miles per hour.
"The potential of these routers and fiber has yet to be realized," Goff said. "The routers are sort of worthless without the fiber."
'We're all waiting'
When contractors finished installing a fiber line and connection at the Mary H. Weir Public Library in Weirton, Rik Rekowski asked them to slice open a piece of cable.
"I just couldn't believe it," Rekowski recalled. "So this is the mystique? All the glass strands? They told me I could run 23 more Mary H. Weir libraries on Main Street with this fiber."
Rekowski was so excited that he coiled up the fiber cable, packed it in a pizza box and hauled it to a Weirton City Council budget hearing to show off the library's future technological capabilities.
"They had never seen fiber optic strands before," Rekowski said. "Everyone was impressed. The fiber is way, way superior."
That was more than a year ago.