State, federal broadband projects moving forward
CHARLESTON — West Virginia is ready to go on broadband expansion projects as soon as the federal government releases American Rescue Plan funds, while the Federal Communications Commission announced that Bridgeport-based Citynet will receive support for its rural broadband plans.
West Virginia lawmakers received an update on broadband projects Sunday during the first day of October legislative interim meetings one day before the start of a special session for congressional and statehouse redistricting and other items. The Joint Committee on Technology heard testimony Sunday afternoon from Mitch Carmichael, cabinet secretary for the Department of Economic Development.
Carmichael said there is more than $478 million in mostly federal funds allocated to the state for broadband expansion, including $136 million specifically allocated to West Virginia through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). The $136 million doesn’t count the $1.36 billion for the state and $678 million for cities and counties that can also be used for broadband infrastructure thanks to ARPA.
“We would really like to get started on these programs. We do not have money yet to do that,” Carmichael said. “There’s been, at this point, no money allocated yet for broadband expansions. We’re very anxious to get started…We’re ready, willing, and able to go when you say go.”
Carmichael announced four programs in June through the Office of Broadband that will use the ARPA broadband funds to focus on looking at existing network line extensions, rapid wireless deployment projects, major broadband infrastructure investments, and a local government/matching broadband funding incentives. But the window to begin those projects is closing soon due to the approach of winter. Carmichael hopes to have the funds in hand by the end of the year.
“The lead times are enormous. The construction season is quickly passing,” Carmichael said. “We have been really pushing the feds to get at least some of these decisions on (the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund) made to make fund these programs.”
The FCC announced last Thursday they were ready to authorize Citynet to begin work on broadband expansion projects in more than 15 counties as part of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) Phase I Auction. The FCC will award Citynet $53.5 million over 10 years to complete the projects, making Citynet the first companies to have their West Virginia plan approved by the FCC.
“More help is on the way to households without broadband,” said FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel in a statement.
“This is an important program for getting more Americans connected to high-speed internet, and we are continuing careful oversight of this process to ensure that providers meet their obligations to deploy in areas that need it.”
Citynet was one of nine companies selected as part of the RDOF Phase I Auction last December. 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. West Virginia pulled down $362.1 million between the nine companies for projects in 119,267 Census tracts where internet service is nonexistent.
Other companies receiving winning bids for West Virginia projects include Frontier Communications, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., Altice USA (Suddenlink), 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 reverse auction will go toward areas with no service. Phase two of the auction, expected to take place at a later date, will focus on areas with partial internet service.
Both West Virginia U.S. Senators Shelley Moore Capito and Joe Manchin released statements last week praising FCC for approving the Citynet projects. Capito and Manchin have made seeking federal support for broadband expansion a priority.
“In order to improve connectivity in West Virginia, we need to make sure we have every single opportunity available to do so,” Capito said. “It’s great news that Citynet out of Bridgeport is one of the local providers–and the first in West Virginia–that will receive a significant portion of this funding. This funding will be instrumental in helping Citynet assist in broadband deployment, helping us better connect West Virginia.”
“Affordable, reliable broadband access is vital to the success and growth of our communities across West Virginia, and the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us the importance of broadband for our everyday lives,” Manchin said. “I am pleased West Virginia provider Citynet will receive $53.5 million to expand access in West Virginia, but there is still work to be done.”
While Manchin and Capito were happy with the announcement, both raised concerns about the maps used to determine what areas of the state and nation were unserved or underserved. Provisions in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the bipartisan hard infrastructure bill passed by the U.S. Senate in August and being held hostage by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, deal with broadband mapping issues.
“The broadband coverage maps used to distribute RDOF funds are still incorrect, and over 2,400 West Virginians have proven it through speed tests submitted to the FCC,” Manchin said. “That’s why I successfully fought to tie broadband funding in the bipartisan infrastructure bill to updated maps to ensure that every West Virginian can get the quality broadband access we all need and deserve.”
A report released last spring by the Competitive Carriers Association found that due to inaccurate broadband coverage maps used by the FCC to determine what areas of the nation are unserved and underserved, federal funding awarded through phase I of the auction went to parts of the U.S. that have dependable access to high-speed internet already.
“While we can all agree that more granular data is needed–and we are working as we speak to improve these broadband maps–it’s important to seize this opportunity instead of holding off,” Capito said. “This will be a gradual process, but it will result in progress toward better-connectivity.”