(10/23/2017)
By Max Garland CHARLESTON GAZETTE

Last month, the West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council asked the Federal Communications Commission to consider rescinding funding that would go to Frontier Communications.

Unsurprisingly, the request went over poorly with the telecommunications giant, which argued it's well on pace to satisfy the funding's purpose of expanding broadband access in the state.

The council, which oversees broadband expansion in West Virginia, asked the FCC last month to allow more smaller, local providers the chance to replace Frontier as the broadband provider in certain areas under the federal Connect America Fund. The program aims to expand internet access for primarily rural communities across the country.

In a letter filed to the FCC in response, Frontier said the council's solution is "misplaced and inappropriate." It said the FCC should reject the council's proposal and instead increase the funding available for broadband rollout in rural West Virginia because Frontier is "well ahead of schedule" to meet the federal program's requirements.

During the fund's first phase, in 2013, the FCC tasked Frontier to build broadband access for nearly 90,000 unserved West Virginia locations by the end of 2020. These locations are sorted by census blocks. The company has currently satisfied 55 percent of that total, according to Frontier spokesman Andy Malinoski, exceeding the FCC's requirement to satisfy 40 percent by the end of the year.

The council requested the FCC consider revoking "all eligible census blocks claimed" by Frontier and have the company bid against other providers through a reverse auction if it wants those blocks back.

The council said the changes will make for a more competitive environment and give rural communities a better chance at closing the digital divide, backing up arguments its president, Rob Hinton, made at a September meeting.

"We're one of the worst states, connectivity wise. We have a limited amount of census blocks that are available in this reverse auction, and we could open up a portion of those and really have an effective impact," he said at the meeting.

The council said the FCC should put a census block up for auction if Frontier has had no construction activity for broadband rollout, if it offers a lack of "higher-quality services with cost efficiencies" and if it doesn't meet a minimum level of service requirements.

As to how it would be determined if Frontier did not meet its service requirements, Hinton said the council could provide the FCC with data collected via the speed test on the council's website.

The council also noted Frontier's $150 million investment to upgrade its network in areas with the slowest internet speeds, following a settlement with West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey's office in 2015. The settlement followed an investigation by Morrisey's office into Frontier's advertising practices for its internet speeds.

The council said the settlement was an example of "discrepancies between the service the incumbent has claimed to provide and the service the incumbent has actually provided."

Frontier said it has deployed broadband to "hundreds of thousands" of West Virginians and invested more than $535 million in network and service improvements, but that its status as the top provider has put an unnecessary target on its back.

"Because Frontier is often alone in undertaking the challenge of providing any landline internet service to the most rural and remote areas in the state, Frontier is often the brunt of dissatisfaction, as expressed in the council's letter, with the available speeds and technologies in those areas," Frontier said.

Frontier said it was "particularly disappointed" by the council's letter, and that it ignored the complexities of broadband rollout. The council's suggestion is "bad policy," Frontier said, and would hinder any company accepting FCC funds.

The census blocks auction is slated to begin in early 2018 and award up to $198 million annually for 10 years to service providers for broadband expansion through the Connect America Fund.

Last week, Frontier said it wouldn't give back the $4.7 million in funds for another broadband expansion program for which the federal government said West Virginia overpaid the company.


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