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Gov. Justice announces broadband expansion

Initiative totals nearly $1 billion, funded from three sources

MORGANTOWN — Gov. Jim Justice and some Republican state legislators gathered on the Capitol steps Wednesday afternoon to announce a broadband expansion initiative totaling nearly $1 billion.

The initiative would be funded from three sources of money – one newly announced on Wednesday. That would be $50 million per year for three years, appropriated by the Legislature. Justice challenged legislative Democrats to buy in on that proposal.

The second is $50 million in federal CARES Act money that Justice has already dedicated from the state $1.25 billion allotment.

The third, at this point, is just potential: up to $766 million in federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund money. RDOF is a Federal Communications Commission program to award up to $20.4 billion nationally to broadband providers for projects in underserved areas.

FCC will hold an auction on Oct. 22 for project bidders; $766 million is the amount West Virginia is eligible for and the full figure could provide broadband access for about 121,000 West Virginia households.

The RDOF portion of the initiative already has bipartisan buy-in. All four leaders from both houses co-signed a Sept. 1 letter to Justice urging him to issue an executive order to lift some regulatory barriers that blocked access to the funds. Justice issued that order Sept. 3.

Justice on Wednesday touted the Roads to Prosperity project launched three years ago with bipartisan support. “Today we’re embarking upon a new highway system-wide.”

Legislators help up a banner dubbing the initiative “Big Jim’s Broadband Plan for Prosperity.”

Justice briefly outlined the three funding sources. “These are not baby steps,” he said. “I don’t believe in baby steps. I believe in giant leaps.”

The regulatory hurdle was dollar caps on a state program administered by the West Virginia Economic Development Authority, called the Broadband Infrastructure Loan Insurance program, created to help providers interested in bidding for the broadband projects.

The program had caps in place that would limit any one project to $10 million per year and all projects to a $50 million per year. His executive order, couched as a necessary response to the communications challenges of the coronavirus emergency, lifted the caps for one year. Justice said he will propose legislation during the 2021 session to replace the caps.

The current Democratic leaders of both houses will not be in office next session. So The Dominion Post contacted the state Democratic Party late in the day for comment on Justice’s announcement, but did not receive a response in time.

At the time of Justice’s RDOF executive order, Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso said, “I certainly believe this is the way to our future for our students, which is so important right now as parents are so concerned about sending their children to school. We’ve got to provide them with that safe opportunity.

“Education is on the forefront of everything I think about, and we’ve got to educate our students or we’re going to lose a generation and we can’t afford to do that. People want to come to West Virginia, they are staying away from the big vacation areas like Myrtle Beach, and they need to come to somewhere where they feel safe and also where one of the parents have the opportunity to work and if we’re going to provide this business opportunity, we’ve got to provide this broadband service.”

House Minority Leader Tim Miley said in September, “I think it’s important for us to always remind ourselves, it doesn’t matter how much we talk about the great place West Virginia is to live and work and have fun, what’s most important is for people outside of the state to know that – and when we expand opportunities for them, such as broadband build up in our state, we become that appealing place where other people from outside the state and around country want to come and live.”

Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, also supported the effort to secure RDOF money. “As a member of the broadband council, we’ve been reviewing this, looking at speed tests, looking at all the lack of opportunities we have to be able to expand broadband and this is one step that the governor is really taking, with the Legislature and with the broadband council, to move this state forward.

“I’m really tired of people outside of the state making decisions for us on broadband that we do not have a say in,” Plymale said. “This is the Governor taking the reigns and really making those decisions and letting us help make those decisions to get the underserved areas served.”

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