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Broadband council chair: We have no plan
[November 27, 2012]

Broadband council chair: We have no plan

CHARLESTON, Nov 27, 2012 (The Dominion Post - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- West Virginia has a Broadband Deployment Council. West Virginia also has a $126 million federal Broadband Technologies Opportunity Program (BTOP) grant to expand state broadband service.

But the two aren't connected, Deployment Council Chairman Dan O'Hanlon told members of the Joint Committee on Technology.

And there's one important broadband tool the state lacks, he said Monday afternoon. "We don't have a plan. We do it on an ad hoc basis. That in my view is a mistake." O'Hanlon and three other speakers came before the committee to talk about the implementation of the BTOP grant. The grant expires Jan. 31, but not all the money is spent and not all the equipment is in place.

And many have questioned the wisdom of the state's decision to use $24 million of the money to buy 1,064 high-end Cisco routers -- at $22,600 apiece -- designed for university-size systems when many small schools and libraries could have made do with smaller, $500 routers.

O'Hanlon said the legislative auditor's office is working on an audit of the grant implementation. Legislative Auditor Aaron Allred told The Dominion Post it should be ready to present in January or February.

The meeting ran over, and many of the tougher money questions never got asked. The committee plans to pick up the discussion again during December interims, which begin Dec. 10.

The 2009 BTOP stimulus grant is intended to accomplish three things: Build a fiber communications connection between WVU and the Green Bank Observatory; build 12 microwave towers and complete the statewide microwave communications network; and connect 1,064 anchor institutions -- schools, hospitals, libraries, public safety facilities, prisons and jails, and courthouses -- to broadband.

All but 175 routers are placed, said Col. Mike Todorovich, a member of the grant implementation team. Five towers still need to go up -- structural issues and federal environmental concerns delayed construction. All but about $7 million is spent or ready to be spent, and the National Telecommunications & Information Administration is preparing to grant BTOP implementation extensions to states hit by Superstorm Sandy and the summer derecho storm.

Committee members observed that facilities ended up with equipment they don't know how to use, or can't afford to use because upgraded service is too high. Sen. Dave Sypolt, R-Preston, observed that his constituents say it's great that schools and libraries are getting broadband, but when will it come to them Gale Given, state chief technology officer, tackled those questions. The first stems from a communication problem. The right people at the anchor facilities didn't get instruction. They're working on that, visiting every anchor.

Frontier -- the company handling the broadband expansion to the anchors -- is handling the second, by offering higher-capacity service to the anchors at the entry-level price.

The third remains somewhat of a problem. The anchors aren't authorized to sell unused service to Internet Service Providers to market to homes and businesses. ISPs have to contract with Frontier to tie into interconnect points to deploy service to communities.

Small, local ISPs have complained that Frontier's rates are too steep to allow them to compete, but Given told The Dominion Post that ISPs that tap into BTOP fiber lines, rather than Frontier lines, can get discounted rates.

Members did briefly touch on the routers. Given responded, "You can second guess any decision." But in her view it's better for schools and such to have more capacity than they need now so they won't be hamstrung if they ever want to expand.

O'Hanlon -- who is also director of Morgantownbased WVNET, the statewide networking coordinator, and vice chancellor for technology for the Higher Education Policy Commission -- talked about creating a state broadband plan.

Last session, he said, the Legislature passed SB 112 to extend the term of the Deployment Council and expand its powers. While it didn't specifically enable the council to create a plan, he's been viewing it as "implicit" that he can go ahead. He'd like legislative instruction to do so, but in the meantime he's working on recommendations to bring to next year's interims.

One idea is a way to get rid of the wireless dead spots around the state by tapping into the unused TV bandwidths that opened when Congress mandated all broadcasts to high definition. There are a couple pilot projects in the works, he said, including one in Morgantown, and it won't cost the state anything to tap into.

___ (c)2012 The Dominion Post (Morgantown, W.Va.) Visit The Dominion Post (Morgantown, W.Va.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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