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W.Va. technology chief: 'We fell a little bit short'

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia officials "fell a little bit short" notifying public agencies across the state about the use and capabilities of Internet routers purchased for $24 million with federal stimulus funds, Chief Technology Officer Gale Given told state lawmakers Monday.

"We fell a little bit short in our communication plan," said Gale Given, who oversees technology for West Virginia state government. "We could have done a better job. This was a good learning lesson for my office."

The West Virginia Legislative Auditor and U.S. Department of Commerce Inspector General are reviewing the state's use of the federal stimulus grant to purchase more than 1,000 routers at $22,600 each.

Some public agency administrators have complained they never requested the high-priced devices and have no use for them.

The West Virginia State Police has 76 routers it hasn't installed because the devices lack proper equipment needed to make them compatible with the agency's Internet and phone network.

Other agency officials have said they don't have anybody on staff with the technical expertise to install the routers, which funnel data, such as email and websites, from one computer network to another.

Also, some public facilities can't afford to turn on the routers because the new fiber-optic Internet connections that come with them cost significantly more.

Given said the Office of Technology is sending technicians to the facilities to help install the routers -- purchased more than two years ago -- and give instructions about their capabilities.

"It's a big challenge to make sure all the entities use them to their full capacity," she said.

Given said the state sent information and contacted one person at every public facility before delivering the routers. However, that person didn't always pass the information along to other office employees, she said.

"We relied on individuals to share information," Given said. "There were some instances where we fell short."

Sen. Bob Williams, D-Taylor, said he has fielded phone calls from librarians who say the new fiber-cable Internet subscriptions cost too much, so the libraries aren't using the fiber and routers.

"They appreciate the fiber, but they can't afford to turn it on," Williams said.

Given said her office was working with the West Virginia Library Commission and Frontier Communications, which is building the fiber network, to lower subscription costs.

Given said auditors with the U.S. Inspector General recently toured several public facilities where the routers were up and running.

"They were impressed with what was going on," Given said during Monday's joint House-Senate technology committee meeting.

In 2010, West Virginia received $126.3 million in federal stimulus funds to expand high-speed Internet across the state. The state is using the money to bring fiber connections and routers to 1,064 "community anchor institutions" -- schools, libraries, state agencies, health centers, State Police detachments, 911 centers, county courthouses and other public facilities. The state also is upgrading an existing microwave tower network used by public safety agencies.

Also at Monday's legislative interim meeting:

• State Homeland Security Director Jimmy Gianato said the state has completed about three-fourths of the broadband expansion project. West Virginia has until Jan. 31 to spend the stimulus money or risk having to return any unspent funds. Gianato said Monday that the federal government would likely extend that deadline because of construction delays caused by the June 29 derecho and last month's Superstorm Sandy.

• Given defended the size of the routers purchased with the stimulus funds. Shortly before the router purchase in 2010, state technology office administrator John Dunlap, who works directly under Given, notified his superiors that the routers "may be grossly oversized" for some locations.

Given said Monday that the federal grant was designed to eliminate the "digital divide." It would have been unfair to buy smaller routers for some facilities and larger ones for others, she said.

"The [broadband] program was designed to get rid of 'haves' and 'have-nots,'" Given said.

• State Sen. Mike Green, D-Raleigh, asked why the state was spending $126.3 million, even though the project has been scaled back significantly. Frontier is building about 550 miles of fiber. The state initially planned to build a 2,400-mile fiber network, according to the project's executive summary and press releases distributed by state and federal officials in 2010.

Given said the National Technology Information & Administration, which is overseeing the stimulus grant, made a "clerical error," and the state initially planned to build 900 miles of fiber, not 2,400 miles.

• The state has about 175 routers in storage that haven't been distributed to public facilities, Given said. All but 30 of those have been assigned to a specific location.

• Dan O'Hanlon, chairman of the West Virginia Broadband Deployment Council, told lawmakers that West Virginia needs to develop a comprehensive plan for spreading broadband statewide.

• The state plans to spend $50 million of the $126.3 million grant on the wireless tower network, which is designed to improve the state's public safety radio network, according to state officials overseeing the project's budget.

"They have far more capabilities than they had before," Given said. "They have a much better system." Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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