By Eric Eyre/Gazette-Mail

Over objections from West Virginia's largest internet providers, the House of Delegates overwhelmingly passed a comprehensive broadband bill Friday that aims to improve internet service and expand availability.

House members voted 97-2 to send the legislation (HB3093) to the state Senate.

"This is a bill that's intended to promote the expansion of broadband services across West Virginia," said Delegate Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay. "It's applicable everywhere. It will allow people who don't have service to get access to that service."

The legislation would authorize a pilot project in which three cities or counties could join together to build a broadband network and offer internet service to customers. The bill also would permit 20 or more families or businesses to form nonprofit co-ops that would provide internet service in rural areas.

Frontier Communications and cable internet providers like Suddenlink oppose those measures, saying they would promote broadband in places that already have the service.

Hanshaw disputed that assertion, while holding up a copy of a letter that internet providers circulated in the House chamber Friday. Hanshaw had marked up the letter with a red pen.

"This bill is intended to promote competition, there's no doubt about that, but it's a bill intended to do so in places where no competition exists," he said.

Frontier and cable internet providers also object to a section of the bill that bars companies from advertising "up to" or potential maximum speeds. The internet providers said the legislation blocks them from promoting their services.

The bill's supporters argue that the prohibition limits deceptive advertising.

"It requires providers engaged in marketing activities to provide a minimum or guaranteed level of speed, rather than a theoretical maximum speed," Hanshaw said.

The legislation also expands the powers of the state Broadband Enhancement Council, giving the panel the authority to receive and distribute grant money. The council also will be asked to create maps of broadband service in West Virginia. The state ranks 48th in the nation for broadband availability.

"We learned the horror stories of people who have moved to West Virginia to locate a business here based upon [outdated and inaccurate] service maps floating around, only to find out the service may not be what was represented," Hanshaw said.

Delegates Michael Folk, R-Berkeley, and Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, were the only two delegates to vote against the bill.

The legislation could face roadblocks in the Senate, whose president, Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, also works as a sales manager for Frontier Communications.


3/22/2017 - 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.

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