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West Virginia gets $362M for rural broadband work

CHARLESTON — The Federal Communications Commission announced Monday that nine companies were selected for the first phase of an auction that will bring high-speed broadband internet to unserved regions of West Virginia.

According to the FCC, nine companies were selected as part of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Phase I Auction. The auction allocated $9.2 billion over a 10-year period to subsidize construction of high-speed gigabit internet in unserved rural areas across the U.S.

“I’m thrilled with the incredible success of this auction, which brings welcome news to millions of unconnected rural Americans who for too long have been on the wrong side of the digital divide,” said Ajit Pai, the outgoing chairman of the FCC. “They now stand to gain access to high-speed, high-quality broadband service.”

West Virginia was eligible to receive $766 million through the auction. Instead, the state pulled down $362.1 million for projects in 119,267 census tracts. Of that amount, the largest — $247.6 million — went to Frontier Communications.

Other companies receiving winning bids for West Virginia projects include Space Exploration Technologies Corp., Altice USA (Suddenlink), Bridgeport-based Citynet, Commnet Wireless, Bruceton Mills-based Digital/PRODIGI, Bluefield, Va.-based GigaBeam, Buckhannon-based Micrologic, and Shenandoah Cable Television.

The first phase of the two-phase auction will go toward areas with no service.

The auction, also known as a reverse auction, started Oct. 29. The specific locations of the West Virginia Census blocks will be released at a later date. Phase two of the auction will focus on areas with partial internet service.

Both U.S. Senators Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., released statements Monday afternoon praising the bid awards. Both senators have worked in different ways to bring attention to West Virginia lack of reliable broadband.

“While this is just a step in the process and this is not yet the end, this news demonstrates another step forward in our goal to better connect West Virginia at a time when connectivity is more important than ever,” Capito said. “As the FCC moves forward with the next steps in the RDOF program, I will be working diligently to ensure that companies that bid in West Virginia have the capacity to carry out their promises of providing gigabit level service to West Virginia residents.”

“I am pleased that my efforts to ensure rural states like West Virginia get a piece of the pie have been successful.” Manchin said. “This funding will connect unserved areas across the state, helping students complete their schoolwork, ensuring our small businesses can compete nationally and globally, and providing seniors and veterans with access to telehealth services. While this is great news, we still have more to do to help all West Virginians get reliable, affordable broadband access.”

In order to encourage companies in the state to participate in the RDOF auction, Gov. Jim Justice signed an executive order in September removing regulatory caps on the West Virginia Development Authority’s Broadband Loan Insurance Program. He 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.

In October, Justice joined Republican lawmakers and Republican legislative candidates in pledging $1 billion for broadband funding starting in 2021. That $1 billion figure included the $766 million the state was eligible for through the RDOF auction, plus $50 million allocated from the $1.25 billion federal C.A.R.E.S. Act funding set aside for coronavirus expenses and a promise to allocate $50 million for broadband expansion in the General Revenue budget every year for three years starting in fiscal year 2022.

In a statement Monday evening, Justice said the $362 million was the ninth highest total support by dollar value of the states receiving RDOF funds.

“I am so proud of these great, entrepreneurial West Virginia companies for stepping up and committing to expand broadband for rural West Virginia,” Justice said. “With their investment into our communities, and by leveraging the public-private partnership created by my executive order, they are truly going to make a lasting, tangible difference for broadband connectivity all across West Virginia.”

With the state only pulling down $362.1 million in the RDOF auction, that leaves Republican lawmakers $387 million short of their $1 billion pledge. There is also concern that the C.A.R.E.S. Act funding set aside for broadband expansion could be clawed back by the federal government if it is not spent by the end of the year.

During his Friday COVID-19 briefing, Justice said the state was only able to spend $33 million of the $50 million set aside in C.A.R.E.S. Act funding. He said broadband will be a focus in his 2021 State of the State address next year.

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

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