CHARLESTON — Officials in West Virginia are eager to get to work on broadband expansion projects funded through federal COVID-19 relief dollars, while companies are still waiting on the Federal Communications Commission to release funds for rural broadband expansion.
The West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council heard reports Thursday on state plans for broadband infrastructure projects funded through the American Rescue Plan.
The state Office of Broadband will open a public comment period for broadband infrastructure needs on Monday. The public will be able to go to broadband.wv.gov and provide comments on where unserved and underserved parts of the state need high-speed internet service. The comment period will be open for six weeks, ending Monday, Aug. 30.
The Office of Broadband also is requesting information from internet service providers. The office plans to use local economic development authorities as respondents for municipal and county governments to send feedback to, which will then be sent to the Office of Broadband.
“There will be an opportunity for our counties and our localities to feed that information to their local EDAs,” said Kelly Workman, administrative director for the West Virginia Development Office. “They will have an opportunity to respond regarding areas that are unserved or areas that just need extra attention on the part of the state. Our goal is to narrow the number of addresses identified as potentially unserved and either re-classify them as unserved or served.”
West Virginia is still awaiting $138 million for broadband expansion through ARP funding. The state can also use part of the $1.355 billion it’s receiving through ARP for infrastructure projects, such as broadband expansion. Counties and cities are receiving a combined $679 million through the Biden plan that can also be used for broadband projects.
Mitch Carmichael, secretary for the Department of Economic Development, released a plan last month for using the federal ARP funds for getting last-mile broadband service — direct connections to homes — to unserved parts of the state with at least 25 Mbps download speeds and 3 Mbps uploads speeds based on FCC definitions for high-speed broadband.
The Office of Broadband, overseen by the Department of Economic Development, wants to focus on parts of the state that are not already funded through federal and state programs. New programs launched last month include grant funding to expand existing fiber and cable internet service, a local government match funding incentive program, and a program for creating new major broadband infrastructure projects. Carmichael said state and local governments need to closely coordinate to spread broadband without duplicating projects.
“Let’s really encourage the counties, cities, and political subdivisions to work closely through this program to coordinate our expenditures, to develop synergy around the funding streams that are available to the counties and the cities, as well as to the state,” Carmichael said. “Our funding streams will be multiplied as we work together and as we seek to provide services to those who do not have it.”
While the state is prepared to start work on broadband projects funded through ARP, companies that were awarded funding through the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Phase I Auction more than six months ago are still awaiting the funds.
Nine companies were selected last December as part of the RDOF Phase I auction, resulting in $362.1 million for projects in 119,267 Census tracts in West Virginia over a 10-year period to subsidize construction of high-speed gigabit internet in unserved rural areas. The FCC awarded $9.2 billion for projects across the U.S.
“The FCC has not taken any action or released any substantial updated information,” said Fred Feit with Tilson Technology Management, a consultant used by the Broadband Enhancement Council. “They have not yet made any announcements that would constitute the next step, which would be essentially final approval to receive universal service funds … they have not done that yet and they’re certainly taking quite a while in comparison to a similar auction in 2018.”
“Hopefully we start getting some long-form approval and money starts flowing,” said Robbie Morris, chairman of the Broadband Enhancement Council.
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