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Editorial: Legislation to expand broadband is at least a start

From The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington:

A bill in the West Virginia legislature aimed at trying to improve residents’ access to broadband internet service can hardly be viewed as a game-changer for the Mountain State, but it’s encouraging to know that lawmakers aren’t ignoring this pressing issue in their current legislative session.

As one might expect when the state is staring at a $500 million budget deficit, the legislation doesn’t pretend to invest any big money in spreading broadband into unserved or underserved areas in the state. In fact, at this point it doesn’t provide any extra funds. But it does open up avenues for smaller projects if some local governments or groups of individuals want to give a try at developing cooperative ventures. How many groups might do that without the aid of grants or loans remains a big question, however.

House Bill 3093 tackles various aspects, but among its provisions is allowing up to three cities or counties to join together to construct a broadband network providing high-speed internet service. Also, under the bill, 20 or more families in rural areas could establish nonprofit co-ops that might qualify for federal grants for a similar undertaking.

The legislation also gives the state’s Broadband Enhancement Council, which was reshaped and reformed last year, more authority. Among its duties would be gathering data about and mapping the strength and accessibility of the state’s broadband services across the state, comparing actual broadband speeds with what broadband providers advertise. The 13-member council would be eligible for funding through state appropriations and donations, and it also could seek funding through grants, which could be distributed for any of its duties or programs, according to the bill. The bill also would require broadband providers to advertise the slowest speeds they provide rather than the fastest, so as to not mislead consumers.

In addition, the proposal tries to make expanding broadband lines more efficient and less costly by allowing fiber-optic cable to be installed in shallower trenches and attaching cable to telephone poles under less cumbersome procedures.

Not surprisingly, companies that already provide broadband service are criticizing House Bill 3093 – just as they have fought against any other proposed legislation in recent years aimed at expanding broadband in the state. “We believe connecting West Virginia citizens is vital to our shared success, and any legislative proposal should focus on reaching the unserved and rural markets of our state,” Frontier Communications spokesman Andy Malinoski said, according to a report by the Charleston Gazette-Mail. “We are, however, concerned that House Bill 3093 may not accomplish that goal.”

Perhaps it won’t. But residents in areas without broadband access are still waiting for Frontier and other existing internet providers to get the job done in their parts of the state. That’s not happening fast enough because those providers are slowed by bottom-line concerns. Since broadband accessibility in West Virginia ranks 48th in the nation, the state government would be remiss if it didn’t try something. And if the existing providers don’t want co-ops formed that might provide competition in the future, they had better step up.

Short of that happening, the strategy outlined in this legislation is a start. If funding can be found, either through grants or low-interest loans, perhaps it will even sprout some progress. Better access to broadband is vital for economic and quality of life benefits.

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