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EDITOR’S NOTE: Broadband across West Virginia is a Holy Grail, touted as essential to reversing the brain drain and declining population that hamper the Mountain State’s full entry into the 21st century. Yet an effort to expand broadband championed by Gov. Jim Justice, using CARES act COVID relief funding, connects few homes and businesses to the internet, as Mountain State Spotlight’s Lucas Manfield reports.
By Lucas Manfield | Mountain State Spotlight | dec18.2020
For Gov. Jim Justice, the announcement was the easy part. In September 2020, he promised to spend $50 million of the state’s federal coronavirus response fund to bring internet to underserved areas of West Virginia.
He held multiple press conferences to flesh out his goal of “covering up West Virginia in broadband,” and even floated a way to do it: give companies $1,000 for every household they hook up.
Making that happen by the end-of-the-year deadline, however, proved much harder.
Among other things, the money will go to new school textbooks and a resurfaced wilderness trail.
By December, Justice admitted he would only spend around $33 million. And documents obtained by Mountain State Spotlight show that almost none of that money will actually go to the governor’s stated goal: delivering better internet to homes and businesses as the pandemic forces West Virginians to adapt to working and learning from home.
Instead, among other things, the money will go to new school textbooks and a resurfaced wilderness trail.
Only one grant — the sole one publicly announced by the governor — went to internet service. Justice gave that $2.3 million grant to a newly-formed nonprofit, run by a state senator, that promises to build 11 miles of fiber around Huntington. The rest, amounting to the vast majority of the money, was allocated to three different state agencies for purposes barely related, if at all, to the governor’s goal.
Back in September, at the press conference announcing the $50 million fund, the governor sketched out where he planned to spend it. He showed a map of West Virginia, which included red areas that supposedly already had internet, and blue areas, where the Federal Communications Commission planned to install broadband using hundreds of millions of dollars in federal incentives.
And then there were white areas — covered by neither.
In these places — and many others across the state — new necessities of modern life, from tele-medicine to Zoom, are impossible because there’s no decent internet. This is at least partly because, for the past decade, West Virginia has been reliant on Frontier Communications, a bankrupt telecommunications company with an appalling track record, to serve rural areas of the state. But it’s also the fault of West Virginia leaders, who have failed to provide substantial state funding to address the problem.
“We want to target those areas,” Justice said.
Here’s where the money actually went.
Mountain State Spotlight obtained the original requests for CARES Act funding submitted to the governor. Four were categorized as broadband-related, each with Justice’s signature of approval. They totaled just over $32 million.
The strangest was the one from the Department of Natural Resources, requesting $1.4 million to rebuild a 72-mile trail through the wilderness outside Parkersburg.
To justify the use of CARES Act funding, the department’s director, Stephen McDaniel, argued that the North Bend Rail Trail’s “proximity” to a new interstate fiber-optic telecommunications cable required its “remediation.”
But Zayo, the Colorado telecommunications company that was installing the fiber, had already promised to fix any damage done by the heavy equipment it had brought in to do the job.
They “have to put it back the way it was, or better,” trail superintendent Paul Elliott told the Parkersburg News and Sentinel back in September.
It is unclear why the state is now footing the bill to fix the trail, and why it’s using funds earmarked for the coronavirus response to do so.
According to a spokeswoman for the company, they did. “Zayo restored the trail to its current condition and even made some minor fixes,” Rebecca Whalen wrote in an email.
But the trail is still closed due to damage. It is unclear why the state is now footing the bill to fix it, and why it’s using funds earmarked for the coronavirus response to do so.
“I would love to talk to you about that, but I cannot,” Elliott said, sounding genuinely apologetic, when reached by Mountain State Spotlight over the phone.
A spokesman for the department offered little clarification.
“As you are aware, this project provides an opportunity to expand much needed high-speed internet services to rural parts of West Virginia,” Andy Malinoski wrote in an emailed statement.
Textbooks for Virtual Learners
Another $8 million is going to the West Virginia Department of Education to fill a hole in its budget produced by the expansion of the state’s virtual school program. The free program expanded ten-fold this year as students — primarily in more populated counties — opted to forgo the classroom entirely during the pandemic.
Classifying this as a broadband-related expense is odd, since kids who voluntarily enrolled in the state’s virtual school program are nearly certain to already have reliable internet access.
In some counties, they even had to sign a contract asserting such before they could apply.
And now they will get the benefit of millions in federal coronavirus relief funds, to be spent on the teachers, textbooks and curriculums that are necessary for them to learn safely while at home.
Students in rural areas of the state where the internet is unreliable or nonexistent will not.
In some counties, including Mineral and Summers, not a single kid signed up to the state’s program, according to data released by the state’s Department of Education in November.
Barely 1% of students in Roane County ended up in the program. The superintendent, Richard Duncan, explained one reason why.
“We just didn’t know how wide the gap was when it comes to broadband.” ~ Clayton Burch
“People hear ‘virtual school’ here, and they just gloss over: well, we can’t do that — we live in Roane County, we don’t have … [a] high speed internet connection” he said.
The “inequities” caused by the state’s poor internet caught state superintendent Clayton Burch by surprise, he told West Virginia Public Broadcasting in July.
“We just didn’t know how wide the gap was when it comes to broadband,” he said.
Although the governor categorized Burch’s $8 million funding request as broadband-related, the money will do nothing to close that gap.
Upgraded public safety radio
Another $20.5 million was allocated to the Department of Homeland Security, for upgrades to the state’s public safety radio network. It is designed specifically for first responders and can be accessed only by government agencies.
“The bandwidth… needs to be upgraded… to carry the additional amount of communication the pandemic has caused,” reads the justification for the expenditure, submitted to the governor by Jeff Sandy, head of the state’s Department of Homeland Security.
But if the network is overloaded, no one seems to have noticed.
After a reporter reached out to the network’s coordinator at the Division of Emergency Management, a spokesman issued a statement.
“There has been no significant effect on the State Interoperable Radio Network resulting from the pandemic response,” wrote Lawrence Messina, referring to SIRN, the public safety communications network.
Other inconsistencies in Sandy’s justification to the governor raise further questions about the necessity of the expenditures.
He claims that “much of the equipment” in the network “is at end of life, with limited to no additional parts available.” This issue is so pressing, he wrote, that it could lead to “loss of life.”
In that same paragraph he claims that the money will be used to install over 51 microwave repeaters that the department has kept “in storage” — and then requests to purchase 61 more.
Both SIRN and Aviat have a scandal-ridden history in West Virginia involving the misuse of federal funds earmarked for broadband expansion.
Sandy also claims the upgrade will increase “network capacity” to 1 gigabit per second while acknowledging that, under normal use, the network transports a similar amount of data, in addition to standard voice service, over an entire day.
The no-bid contract to build and install the new microwave equipment will go to Texas-based Aviat Networks.
That name might sound familiar. Both SIRN and Aviat have a scandal-ridden history in West Virginia involving the misuse of federal funds earmarked for broadband expansion.
In 2010, the state used $33 million of federal stimulus funds to upgrade SIRN with equipment purchased from Aviat. Auditors later found that officials circumvented state purchasing laws.
At the time, state officials promised it would help bring internet to hard-to-reach hollows in West Virginia. Many of the towers are located in rural areas that are underserved — or not served at all — by Frontier.
To do that, Gale Given, the state’s Chief Technology Officer at the time, said that up to a third of the network’s bandwidth would be devoted to commercial use.
That didn’t happen.
“No,” Messina replied when asked if SIRN was currently used for any commercial purposes.
Brainstorming $50 million
Other states are trying something different. At least six states have created new broadband infrastructure grant programs using the CARES Act money, according to an analysis by Pew Charitable Trusts. Mississippi is giving away $75 million to rural utility cooperatives.
West Virginia has its own cooperatives, including Hardy Telecommunications, which has been remarkably successful at bringing high-speed internet to rural communities. The company recently was denied subsidies from the Federal Communications Commission to expand its network in the state — the co-op was likely outbid by Frontier.
Other ideas have been thrown around inside the governor’s mansion.
In early October, a small group of government officials and telecommunications executives met there to brainstorm ways to spend the $50 million.
Make it happen, Justice told him. Why it hasn’t is unclear.
Various ideas were presented, including building out the state’s internet backbone and rewiring SIRN to service homes and businesses in rural communities.
At the end, a source familiar with the meeting, who was not authorized to discuss it publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said Justice was receptive.
He turned to Bray Cary, a former broadcast media executive who earns minimum wage as an advisor to the governor.
Make it happen, Justice told him.
Why it hasn’t is unclear. The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Frontier’s history of scandals killed a proposal for crucial funding for West Virginia broadband: sep30.2020: If you live in West Virginia, you live with constant laments about the state’s lousy broadband and how it hinders investment, rural development and population growth. Here’s a good Mountain State Spotlight explainer as to why that is so.