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W.Va. officials defend stimulus broadband spending

Thu, 07/12/2012 - 2:34pm
The Associated Press

West Virginia bought more than 1,000 expensive Internet routers with federal stimulus funds as part of an ambitious plan to create a long-lasting, high-capacity broadband network throughout the state, the official overseeing that spending has told a congressional inquiry.

Jimmy Gianato responded to questions about the spending from two U.S. House Energy and Commerce subcommittee chairmen, John Shimkus of Illinois and Greg Walden of Oregon. The Republicans posed eight questions to state officials regarding the pursuit of the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program grant. Most focus on the decision to buy 1,064 high-capacity Cisco routers for locations including small schools and libraries, following articles in The Charleston Gazette regarding those purchases.

But it's not clear whether Gianato's answers have satisfied the chairmen. Walden and Shimkus are currently reviewing Gianato's response, said Debbee Keller, a spokeswoman for the Energy and Commerce committee.

Gianato's June 28 written response says West Virginia applied for the $126 million stimulus grant to fund a three-prong plan to bring the latest broadband and telecommunications gear to a state where hilly terrain, low-income residents and other factors have stymied previous efforts.

"For a private sector provider, the costs are too high to reach too few customers who have not proven historically likely to purchase broadband services when provided," the response said. "Left to pure market forces, West Virginia and other rural areas will have inferior technology – or none at all."

The state's plan envisions a network of fiber-optic cable anchored by schools, libraries, hospitals, public safety agencies and other locations deemed community institutions. Under the plan, the state would also build 12 towers to fill a gap in the microwave communication system for law enforcement and other first responders. That part of the plan involves upgrading that system to withstand disasters while expanding its features.

The plan's other main goal is a broadband connection between the sprawling National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Greenbank and West Virginia University to relay the massive amounts of data it collects with the rest of the world in real time. When the state applied for the stimulus grant in August 2009, Greenbank shared its data by shipping disks to WVU by truck, Gianato's response said.

Gianato wrote that the state has so far spent $56.4 million from the grant, with $26.6 million going to the microwave system and $29.6 million devoted to the broadband network. That later spending includes $1.1 million to Frontier Communications as the successor company to the state's contractor for telecommunications, Verizon Communications.

Shimkus and Weldon specifically asked why this part of the plan relies on a single type of router instead of differing models related to the size or population of its location. Gianato wrote that officials considered that option. Cisco had suggested a suitable router but noted it was phasing out that model. The state ended up choosing a newer, more capable type of router that Cisco offered at the same price as the older model, the response said.

"The application was not based on the usage levels or number of workstations at the [community institutions] today, but instead on the concept that we should be equipping our citizens to fully embrace enabling future technology," the response said.

The response also says that these anchoring institutions "have always been intended to be hub locations at which multiple providers of broadband services or applications can interconnect in order to provide connectivity and service offerings to the surrounding community."

But critics of this approach include the West Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association, which represents providers that offer such services as high-speed Internet access. While welcoming broadband stimulus funding, the trade group disagrees that the state is as lacking in access as officials contend. In a November 2009 letter on the issue it provided to The Associated Press, the association argues that the plan outlined in the grant application won't create hubs.

"These 1,064 institutions constitute end users that will use the broadband connections themselves, rather than serving as conduits or interconnection points for last-mile providers," the letter said.

Gianato's response also explains that state has since received another 100 routers for free from Cisco after learning it qualified for a discount. Shimkus and Weldon had asked about those additional devices.

The congressmen also asked Gianato to report how many routers remain in storage, and why. He did not answer that question directly. His response said 383 routers are on their way to being installed, and that all will be in place by February.

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