(04/05/2017)
4/4/2017 - CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The bill that would allow for the expansion of broadband in rural West Virginia got new life Wednesday when the Senate Government Organization Committee recalled the bill that it gutted the day before.

4/6/2017 Eric Eyre , Staff Writer Gazette Mail

A West Virginia broadband expansion bill was in jeopardy Tuesday, after a Senate committee stripped away key measures that aimed to promote competition among internet firms and block deceptive advertising about service speeds.

Frontier Communications and cable internet providers had lobbied for the changes.

The Senate Government Organization Committee passed the heavily revised bill (HB 3093) onto the Senate floor for a vote later this week.

House leaders said they would not support the stripped-down version of the bill. "The Senate Government Organization Committee has effectively gutted a good piece of legislation and replaced it with something that gives the industry basically everything it wants," said Delegate Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay. "Our bill was a consumer-first bill. It's now become industry-first protection."

The Senate's overhaul puts new restrictions on individuals and businesses that want to form nonprofit co-ops that would qualify for federal grants to expand internet service. The co-ops must be located in "underserved" or "unserved" rural areas where no internet firms are providing service, the Senate committee's lawyer told lawmakers.

The revised bill also places the same limitation on pilot projects in which three or more cities or counties would band together and build broadband networks to provide high-speed internet service. So places like Dunbar, Nitro and South Charleston wouldn't be eligible to do so because residents in those towns already have access to broadband.

"If existing internet providers are not going to deliver adequate broadband to my district and the rest of the state, then our communities deserve to be able to band together to establish their own service," said Hanshaw, vice chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and the broadband bill's lead sponsor. "The Senate's changes simply would not allow that to happen."

Frontier spokesman Andy Malinoski said the company backs the Senate's changes.

"The change ensures that the legislation focuses on unserved communities, and that people who do not have service can form cooperatives," Malinoski said. "The previous version only allowed those who had service to do so."

The Senate committee eliminated a section of the bill that would have forbidden internet companies from falsely advertising maximum download speeds — also referred to as "up to" speeds — while providing significantly slower internet speeds to customers.

Another Senate change removed a measure that would have allowed smaller internet firms to place their fiber on telephone poles more quickly under new, expedited procedures.

"The existing providers don't want competition," said Ron Pearson, a retired federal judge and broadband advocate.

Frontier argued that the "make-ready pole-access" provision might conflict with Federal Communication Commission rules.

"The FCC has begun taking public comments in a rule-making effort to streamline rules for pole attachments," Malinoski said. "We think it's wise for the state to allow the agency that has authority over the process to be the entity that changes the rules."

Also Tuesday, the Senate inserted into the House bill the entire contents of a Senate bill (SB 614), which would authorize the state to back loans to smaller internet providers that want to bring broadband service to rural areas. The firms would be eligible for loan guarantees of up to $10 million.


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