By ERIC EYRE
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A day after eviscerating a broadband expansion bill at the request of West Virginia’s largest internet providers, a Senate committee restored key components of the legislation designed to spark competition and improve service.
The Senate Government Organization Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to undo changes its members had approved the previous afternoon.
The committee’s about-face followed harsh words from House leaders who railed against the unexpected overhaul, saying the Senate essentially gutted the bill and kowtowed to Frontier Communications and cable internet providers.
“We’re putting it back how it was at the House,” said state Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker. “There’s no trickery here.”
The bill would authorize up to 20 individuals and businesses to form nonprofit co-ops that would provide internet service in rural areas. The legislation also would allow the state to start a pilot project in which three cities or counties could band together to build a broadband network and offer internet to customers.
Lobbyists for Frontier and the cable industry had Senate lawyers add language to the bill that authorized the co-ops and the pilot project only in remote areas that had no internet service.
“You worked with the attorney to get that language put in there, correct?” Smith asked Frontier executive Kathy Cosco during Wednesday’s committee meeting.
“We shared some language with the attorney, yes,” Cosco said.
Smith said Frontier and the state shouldn’t be putting restrictions on co-ops that want to improve internet service in their communities.
“If they’re paying for it, who are we to say you already have enough internet service?” Smith said. “It’s asinine. If it’s their own money, why is it a concern? We have no right to tell them what they can and cannot do.”
Frontier spokesman Andy Malinoski said the company supports proposals that spur broadband projects that bring high-speed internet to homes and businesses that don’t have it now. The current bill authorizes the internet co-ops only in places that have broadband, he said.
“It is unfortunate the committee back-pedaled and yesterday’s recommendations were reversed,” Malinoski said. “Those changes made the legislation workable for all parties and may have helped reach those in our state currently without service.”
Earlier this week, Frontier lobbyists also persuaded Senate lawyers to remove a section from the bill that would allow smaller internet providers to place their fiber on telephone poles more quickly under new, expedited procedures.
Senate committee members reinserted that section Wednesday, over Frontier’s strong objections. Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, is a Frontier executive.
The Federal Communications Commission recently announced plans to release new rules that would make it easier for internet providers to access utility poles.
“We would like to see this particular piece of this bill stripped, because the FCC is about to embark on this issue,” Cosco said. “It’s about streamlining the process.”
Senate committee members did leave out one section of the bill that they removed Tuesday: a ban on deceptive advertising.
The original bill barred broadband companies from advertising “up to” or potential maximum internet speeds. Cosco told lawmakers the provision would have blocked Frontier and other internet providers from promoting their services.
On Tuesday, the Senate inserted into the House bill the entire contents of a Senate bill (SB 614) that 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. The West Virginia Economic Development Authority would administer the program.
The loan guarantees would be available only for projects designed to bring high-speed internet to areas with no existing broadband service.
Senate committee members agreed Wednesday to keep the loan guarantee program in the House bill.
The committee took up the broadband bill Wednesday morning without notifying the public ahead of time. The committee’s online agenda made no mention of its plans to reconsider the bill.
The legislation next moves to the Senate floor.
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