|COMMENT By Bob Weaver|
It's been a smoke and mirrors world living in West Virginia faced with joining 21st Century technology, the need to have real high-speed broadband for the education of our children and to operate small and large businesses which depend on having adequate connectivity.
Over the years, I have attended large numbers of seminars, conferences and political events that touted the necessity of bringing broadband to rural areas, linked with initiatives, actual funding and promises that such will be coming.
The oft-heard statement was, "You can operate any business from even the remotest spots in West Virginia."
I heard from political leaders in the 1990s that moving from an economy based on King Coal and natural resource extractables to a diverse economy based based on 21st century technology was essential for the state to survive, but state leaders continue to cling to an economy based on the past.
In 2013, West Virginia remains at or near the bottom in broadband connectivity or availability, but promises and press releases keep coming, with outfits allowed to sell "high-speed" or "broadband" services under the guise that it is the real thing.
If the Hur Herald was a real business, we would have pulled the plug years ago.
Not only has broadband access been affected by those in charge of millions of dollars in the Mountain State, it has also affected the development of a communications infrastructure for the safety and security of the state's citizens.
The Hur Herald's persistent pursuit of the issue, often with the leadership of Frontier, has at the very best, revealed more smoke and more mirrors.
While the misuse of millions of dollars has been reported by the Charleston Gazette, an editorial sums it up, alluding to a "follow the money" debacle:
September 26, 2013
Editorial: Broadband project is a fiasco/Charleston Gazette
If the Guinness Book of World Records has a category for the worst bureaucratic bungles, the top spot might go to West Virginia's pathetic handling of the statewide broadband network that was funded by federal tax money.
For more than a year, Statehouse reporter Eric Eyre revealed how state officials stupidly installed monster-size $22,000 routers in tiny public facilities where $100 units could have transmitted data to computers.
Earlier this year, Legislative Auditor Aaron Allred confirmed that between $8 million and $15 million in U.S. funds was wasted on the routers.
Commendably, the vendor that supplied the wireless devices -- Cisco Systems, headed by Charleston native John Chambers -- offered to correct the botch and give West Virginia extra years of free warranty.
Next, Eyre disclosed that outside examiners concluded that West Virginia's broadband system was supposed to be an "open-access network" available to all servers, but it became mostly a "private" web giving Frontier Communications an "unintended monopoly."
Taxpayers paid $118,000 for this outside analysis, but the Tomblin administration hid it from the public for nearly a year, until Eyre unearthed it. Frontier issued an angry denial.
Now, Legislative Auditor Allred has issued a second damning finding. He told a joint legislative committee that state officials "simply broke the law" by giving bidless contracts to a Lewis County firm to build $10 million worth of communications towers.
State law requires competitive bids for all significant state spending, but the law was evaded in regard to 17 towers. Further, the Lewis County contractor, Premier Construction, used unlicensed subcontractors for part of the work.
The audit says state Purchasing Director David Tincher told Homeland Security Director Jimmy Gianato and emergency communications director Joe Gonzalez to halt the bidless tower work, but they proceeded.
It says Gonzalez has complex personal involvements with Premier. "Things look screwy," Allred told lawmakers.
One legislator, Delegate Gary Howell, R-Mineral, asked whether this mess should be referred to U.S. attorneys and the FBI for a criminal investigation. Allred replied: "What they did definitely was illegal, in our opinion, but whether there was a crime, that's really up to the U.S. prosecutor to decide, not for us."
Well, we hope U.S. prosecutors make a decision about this travesty. West Virginians have lived through a seemingly endless parade of humiliating revelations. Now they deserve to know whether the fiasco was caused by incompetence, or something worse.