Future Generations leaders said state law requires the council to fund projects that tout broadband.
"Demand promotion is an essential complement to infrastructure projects," said LeeAnn Shreve, director of Future Generations Rural America. "West Virginians, especially poorer families with marginal incomes, have a difficult choice in whether or not to subscribe to broadband, and many are still without computers in the home."
A recent Federal Communications Commission report -- called "Reducing the Broadband Gap in West Virginia" -- ranks West Virginia 45th in the nation for the percentage of people who subscribe to high-speed Internet. The survey found that only 49 percent of West Virginians with broadband access sign up for the service.
"The council shifted away from a key tenet of the state code that established the council -- to stimulate broadband demand through public outreach and education," Arndt said. "The concept, which we support, makes sense, considering that West Virginia has one of the lowest broadband adoption rates in the nation."
With state grant money, Future Generations planned to offer discounted broadband service -- at a cost of $9.95 a month -- through Frontier to low-income families in rural areas. Some families also would have received free computers, along with "digital literacy" training at computer centers located at fire stations across the state.
"Poorer families need opportunities to learn about broadband and computers at a discounted rate so that they may judge for themselves the value and relevance of broadband in terms of family connections, education, knowledge, consumer choice and access to job opportunities," Shreve said. "In other words, broadband access is more than infrastructure -- [it's] about knowledge, skills and opportunities to learn."
Frontier said the company wouldn't receive grant money from the Future Generations project.
"We agreed to donate to the project by providing subsidized services to those who would benefit," Arndt said. "I want to be clear: We are not seeking any grant funds under the proposal. Rather, we are offering our support, worth about $1 million to a community-based initiative."
Other nonprofits -- including the Partnership of African American Churches, West Virginia University and Marshall University -- also submitted projects designed to increase consumer demand for broadband. Those projects, however, scored low, and the consultant didn't recommend that the council fund the proposals.
McConatha called the Broadband Council's vote to "table" demand promotion projects a "last-minute" decision that blindsided grant applicants. Council members had never previously discussed -- at least not publicly -- the possibility of only giving grant money to wireless tower and fiber projects.
"More than anything, this decision shows a lack of leadership on part of the council," McConatha said. "The decision of the West Virginia Broadband Deployment Council to not even consider the proposals to expand these [demand promotion] programs is a profound disappointment to everyone involved in this grass-roots effort."
In 2010, Future Generations received a $4 million federal stimulus grant to set up computer centers at 60 volunteer fire departments in West Virginia. The computers are available to the public at specified hours. The nonprofit also has provided training to more than 160 people who teach computer skills to rural residents and veterans.
Reach Eric Eyre at erice...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.