Five firms OK’d for broadband project

CHARLESTON — Gov. Jim Justice praised the approval of five companies Wednesday for a federal program to bring high-speed broadband internet to rural West Virginia.

Bridgeport-based Citynet, Bruceton Mills-based Digital/PRODIGI, Bluefield, Va.-based Gigabeam, Lost River-based Hardy Telecommunications, and Buckhannon-based Micrologic have been approved for the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Auction next week.

Justice commented on the selection following a campaign rally by Republican lawmakers and candidates for the Legislature on Wednesday afternoon on the north-side steps of the State Capitol Building. The Republican candidates pledged, once elected, to allocate $50 million every year for three years for broadband expansion.

“I think it’s great,” Justice said. “If you’ve got five companies competing for business, that’s great. A lot of people said we wouldn’t even get one company to bid. If we have five qualified companies, that’s good stuff.”

At least six companies and possibly a seventh company were preparing applications to bid on West Virginia Census tracts according to U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito.

“In order to improve connectivity in West Virginia, we need to make sure we have every single opportunity available to do so. One of those opportunities is the upcoming RDOF reverse auction,” Capito said Tuesday in a statement. “This next step brings each of these providers closer to the possibility of receiving financial support from the FCC that will assist in broadband deployment, helping us better connect West Virginia.”

The auction will allocate up to $20.8 billion over a 10-year period to subsidize construction of high-speed gigabit internet in unserved rural areas across the U.S. The first phase of the two-phase auction starts Oct. 29, and will go toward areas with no service. Phase two will focus on areas with partial service.

West Virginia is eligible for up to $766 million in federal funding available over 10 years through the Opportunity Fund auction, the 13th highest amount available to a state. If companies are able to successfully bid on broadband projects in unserved and underserved census tracts in West Virginia, it could expand broadband to more than 120,000 homes and benefit as many as 221,000 state residents.

According to the FCC, there are 500 applicants for the Opportunity Fund auction nationwide, with 386 applicants selected. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said it was a 75-percent increase in bidders over a similar project in 2018.

“We are taking one of the last steps before ringing the opening bell for the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, our biggest and boldest step yet to bridge the digital divide for over 10 million unserved consumers across rural America,” Pai said in a statement Tuesday.

Last month in an announcement with Republican and Democratic officials, Justice signed an executive order removing regulatory caps on the West Virginia Development Authority’s Broadband Loan Insurance Program. Republican and Democratic lawmakers will introduce a bill next year to permanently remove or change those caps. Justice also ordered the Economic Development Authority under the Department of Commerce to limit the application approval from the Broadband Loan Insurance Program to no more than is necessary for the first year of the program.

During Wednesday’s event, which was announced with a media advisory by the Governor’s Office, there were no Democratic leaders invited to attend. The Republican lawmakers and candidates pledged $1 billion for broadband funding, but that $1 billion included $50 million allocated through the $1.25 billion federal C.A.R.E.S. Act for broadband. It also assumes the state will be able to pull down the entire $766 million through the RDOF auction, which is not guaranteed.

Two Democratic lawmakers happened to attend Wednesday’s rally by chance. Del. Andrew Robinson, D-Kanawha, is a candidate for state Senate in the 17th District. He was joined by state Sen. Rich Lindsay, D-Kanawha. Both were disappointed that Democratic lawmakers were not invited to participate in Wednesday’s broadband pledge.

“(Justice) said only the (Republican) majority was pushing for broadband,” Robinson said. “I was a little disappointed … unfortunately they made it a partisan thing, which broadband isn’t a partisan thing. We’ve all got together and push this forward.”

“The Senate Democratic Caucus had reached out months ago about the need for broadband once we knew they were going to attempt school in the fall,” Lindsay said. “We weren’t included in this today, of course.”

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)


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