This is about the 15th initiative to bring real broadband to the Mountain State since the 1990s, while putting the eggs in the basket to return coal to its former glory. - Bob Weaver

Broadband council prepares for expanded role

Max Garland , Staff Writer/Gazette Mail

The council tasked with driving the improvement of West Virginia's lagging internet speeds will soon see an expanded role.

During the state Broadband Enhancement Council's first meeting since Gov. Jim Justice signed the broadband bill (HB 3093) into law, the council on Thursday discussed its new responsibilities, including mapping the current levels of internet service in West Virginia and being involved in the loan insurance program for service providers established by the bill.

"I think it's something that's a good first step for the state," Rob Hinton, president of the Broadband Enhancement Council, said of the bill's passage. "It definitely thrusts a tremendous responsibility onto this council, which we are welcoming with open arms, and we'll do whatever we need to do."

The council noted the progress of maps that will show the state of broadband access throughout West Virginia. It uses data from internet providers and displays access speeds for customers by Census block.

The council will have three different maps for showing internet access: service areas below 6 mbps, service areas between 6 to 25 mbps and service areas with speeds above 25 mbps. Twenty-five mbps is considered the minimum standard for broadband by the Federal Communication Commission.

"Having these maps can help us determine where the fiber is and where it isn't," Hinton said. "That's one of the biggest constraints currently for any providers settling in an area. This can help us show discrepancies in any current data, and it also comes into play in the loan insurance program."

Through the loan insurance program, providers can receive loan guarantees from the state Economic Development Authority of up to $10 million to provide broadband in areas without an existing service. The maps can help the council and the EDA determine if the area the provider would develop in is one that doesn't actually have existing access.

Hinton said the EDA will be responsible for the bulk of the insurance program, but the council will make recommendations to it based on the maps' data.

The broadband bill's overarching focus is to increase competition among internet providers through co-ops, easier telecommunications pole access and other methods to help expand currently limited broadband access for West Virginians.

The bill also significantly expands the powers of the governor-appointed council, which was established in March 2015, replacing the Broadband Deployment Council that ended in December 2014. It allows the council to receive and distribute grant money to be used for any of its duties. It also tasks members to find ways to use expanded broadband access to benefit West Virginians, including through government agencies, educational programs and career training programs.

The bill, which goes into effect July 7, establishes the creation of the Broadband Enhancement Fund, which is to be controlled by the Department of Commerce Secretary. The council can apply for state or federal funding to be dispensed in the fund.

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