BROADBAND PROMISES, BROADBAND DREAMS - WV Legislative Proposal Meets Opposition

(03/19/2017)

WV RANKS 48 IN REAL BROADBAND ACCESS IN USA

LATEST BROADBAND EFFORT REQUIRES NO STATE TAX MONEY

By Eric Eyre Gazette-Mail

Frontier Communications and cable companies like Suddenlink are opposing the West Virginia Legislature’s latest attempt to improve high-speed internet across the state.

At a public hearing Friday, lobbyists for Frontier and the cable industry skewered parts of a bill (HB3093) that would authorize a pilot project in which three cities or counties would band together to build a broadband network and offer internet service to customers.

The industry lobbyists said legislation should target areas without high-speed internet — not places that already have service.

“When you spend taxpayer dollars and resources to focus on areas that already have broadband just so you can have a third or fourth choice, you are denying and depriving service to those who have none,” said Kathy Cosco, a Frontier executive and lobbyist.

Frontier and cable internet providers also oppose a section of the bill that would allow 20 or more families or businesses to form nonprofit co-ops that would provide internet service in rural areas.

Mark Polen, who represents the cable industry, said the bill should be changed to “make it clear these pilot projects and co-ops can’t be deployed where there’s already service.”

“That would be critical to the protection of our investment,” Polen said. “Anything that’s going to result in public subsidies being given to those that are going to overbuild private investment is not the proper policy. Let’s focus on the unserved areas and not allow this program to turn into an overbuilding initiative.”

Smaller internet providers like Bridgeport-based Citynet support the legislation. Citynet CEO Jim Martin told lawmakers that Frontier and the cable industry want to shut out competitors and protect their stranglehold on broadband service across the state.

“There is a reason they’re opposed to it, and that’s because this bill is going to enable competition,” Martin said.

Frontier, which is the largest internet provider in the state, also opposes a section of the bill that bars companies from advertising maximum or “up to” speeds. That measure aims to block firms from advertising internet speeds that they seldom — or never — deliver to customers.

Cosco said the measure unfairly stops companies from touting improved service. Frontier stopped advertising an “up to” speed in 2014, she said.

“If providers aren’t allowed to promote the service that’s available, it would be detrimental to the state’s economic development,” Cosco said.

Martin said his company would have no problem whatsoever with the ban on deceptive advertising. Internet providers would still be able to advertise minimum download and upload speeds available to customers.

“If you have a network and you’re comfortable with it, you should be able to advertise your minimum speed, and then stick with it,” Martin said. “It’s fantastic we aren’t going to allow for false advertising and representations of an ‘up to’ speed.”

Speakers at the public hearing also praised the bill for establishing procedures that would give internet providers quicker access to telephone poles used to hang fiber cable. Smaller firms said they sometimes have to wait months or years to use the poles.

But Cosco said the proposed changes conflict with Federal Communication Commission rules. And a leader of a union that represents Frontier technicians said the proposed pole procedures pose a safety risk.

“It would allow unqualified personnel from third-party contractors to transfer equipment on a utility pole to make room for a new provider’s equipment,” said Elaine Harris, who represents the Communications Workers of America in West Virginia.

ORIGINAL STORY 3/16/2017 - West Virginia lawmakers unveiled comprehensive broadband legislation Thursday that aims to spur competition among internet providers in rural areas and stop deceptive advertising about internet speeds.

House Bill 3093 would allow up to three cities or counties to start a pilot project by banding together and building a broadband network that provides high-speed internet service. Twenty or more families or businesses in rural communities also could form nonprofit co-ops that would qualify for federal grants to expand internet service, according to the bill.

“This is superb,” said Ron Pearson, a retired federal bankruptcy judge and broadband expansion advocate. “We’ve got to have competition in providing internet and other services that travel over fiber to households and businesses or we’re going to be stuck in the dark ages of competition in West Virginia.”

Lobbyists for Frontier Communications and cable internet providers already are raising objections to the legislation. The bill will face tough sledding in the Senate. Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, also works as Frontier’s sales director in West Virginia.

“We believe connecting West Virginia citizens is vital to our shared success, and any legislative proposal should focus on reaching the unserved and rural markets of our state,” Frontier spokesman Andy Malinoski said. “We are, however, concerned that House Bill 3093 may not accomplish that goal.”

Delegate Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, gave a 30-minute overview of the broadband legislation Thursday in the House chamber. Lawmakers have been working on the bill for months.

One of the bill’s key selling points: It requires no state funding — welcome news as lawmakers grapple with a $500 million budget deficit.

“We need revenue-neutral solutions to problems,” Hanshaw told lobbyists and fellow lawmakers who attended his presentation. “This is such a bill.”

In addition to broadband co-ops, the legislation would forbid internet companies from falsely advertising maximum download speeds — also referred to as “up to” speeds — while providing significantly slower speeds to customers. The internet firms could still advertise minimum internet service speeds.

Frontier, West Virginia’s largest internet provider, faces a class-action lawsuit over false advertising. Attorney General Patrick Morrisey also has taken the company to task over internet speeds.

“This [section of the bill] protects consumers from deceptive advertising,” Hanshaw said.

The legislation also expands the powers of the state Broadband Enhancement Council.

The 13-member panel would be responsible for collecting data about internet speeds and broadband service across the state — and publishing the “mapping” information. Data would be collected voluntarily from internet providers and consumers.

West Virginia ranks 48th in the nation for broadband accessibility.

“More data is always better,” Hanshaw said. “It gives businesses looking to locate here a definitive tool they can use to make decisions on where to locate a facility.

” Also under the bill:

The broadband council would collect and distribute grant money. The council also would act as a “think tank” and make recommendations to the Legislature.

Internet providers could string fiber-optic cable in shallow “micro-trenches,” which are less expensive to dig than traditional utility trenches.

Companies wanting to expand broadband could place their fiber on telephone poles more quickly under new, expedited procedures.

A program would allow landowners to voluntarily grant easements for fiber lines.

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