WV Internet providers targeted over slow speeds

By Eric Eyre, Statehouse Reporter GAZETTE MAIL

State lawmakers are targeting telecommunications companies in West Virginia that advertise "high-speed" Internet service but don't deliver anything of the sort to customers.

Members of the House of Delegates reviewed legislation last week that would require Internet providers to offer download speeds of at least 10 megabits per second if the companies advertise their broadband service as "high speed."

Many West Virginians, particularly those who live in rural areas, don't have Internet speeds anywhere near 10 megabits per second. Customers with slow service can't use TV- and movie-streaming services like Netflix.

"They feel they never get the speed the Internet providers represent," said Delegate John Shott, R-Mercer, who heads the House Judiciary Committee. "There doesn't seem to be any recourse or regulatory body that has any ability to cause that to change."

In October 2014, Frontier Communications customers filed a class-action lawsuit, alleging the company "throttles back" its Internet service and provides speeds slower than advertised. Frontier, the lone Internet provider in many rural parts of the state, responded that customers got the service they paid for. The two sides continue to battle in court.

State lawmakers say they've fielded an increasing number of complaints from constituents about Internet service — slow speeds, unreliable service, or no service at all.

"The list of sponsors of this bill [HB 2551] are from a broad geographic area," Shott said. "They've identified this as a problem in their areas."

According to the bill, Internet providers could face sanctions under state consumer protection laws. The Attorney General's Office would be required to investigate customer complaints.

"Basically, there are contracts where [Internet providers] provide and charge for what they call 'high-speed' Internet service, however, the speeds can vary," said Nate Tawney, a lawyer with the House Judiciary Committee. "They may advertise speeds up to 12 or 15 megabits per second, but the customer may receive only a fraction of that."

Under the bill, customers could recoup up to $3,000 in damages every time Internet providers falsely advertise Internet speeds. The companies also could be fined up to $5,000 for each violation.

The 10-megabit download speed requirement is significantly slower than federal guidelines. The Federal Communication Commission recently changed its standards and doesn't consider anything below 25 megabits per second to be high-speed Internet.

"The FCC has been the leader of what broadband should be and how fast it should be," Tawney said.

Some lawmakers have suggested tying West Virginia's download speed to the FCC's definition of high-speed Internet. But that could discourage Internet providers like Frontier from expanding into some rural markets, where it's not cost-effective -- and next to impossible -- to provide speeds anywhere close to 25 megabits.

"When you get right down to it, it's a very complicated situation," said Delegate Frank Deem, R-Wood.

On Friday, Shott appointed a three-member subcomittee —Delegates J.B. McCuskey, R-Kanawha, Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, and Andrew Byrd, D-Kanawha — to study the issue and revise the bill in the coming weeks.

Frontier lobbyists are keeping a close watch on the legislation.

"We are available to the subcommittee to provide information, explanation and background on this issue as we continue our last-mile infrastructure investments to expand access and increase speeds to our customers," said Frontier spokesman Andy Malinoski.

In December, Frontier agreed to upgrade Internet speeds to 6 megabits per second for about 28,000 customers, following a settlement with Attorney General Patrick Morrisey's office.

Frontier had been advertising speeds of "up to 6 megabits per second, but many customers found speeds of 1.5 megabits per second or lower," according to the settlement.

Also Friday, Sen. Chris Walters, R-Putnam, introduced legislation that would create a $72 million fiber-optic Internet network in West Virginia. The bill aims to increase Internet speeds, improve service and drive down prices for business and residential customers.

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