West Virginia committee debates broadband bill
CHARLESTON — Improving broadband Internet access in West Virginia remains a concern in the state and a frustration in the Legislature
House Bill 4629 “relating to broadband enhancement and expansion policies” passed through the Senate Government Organization Committee on Wednesday morning at the state Capitol.
While people debated the value of the original bill and the current amended bill during the committee meeting, frustrations grew more tense.
Billy Jack Gregg, consultant for Frontier Communications, acknowledged the frustration during his committee testimony, but estimated broadband access has reached 90 percent in West Virginia.
“We’re doing what we can. We understand (frustration) when one neighbor has broadband and another can’t get it. But (Frontier) is the one going to those areas, carrying that economic burden. Serving rural customers is the challenge we will face not only today but going forward until we get that remaining 10 percent,” Gregg said.
Sen. Douglas Facemire, D-Braxton, took exception with Gregg’s testimony, going as far as accusing him of being “misleading” and “playing word games.”
“I specifically asked you if you were for this bill, and your answer was ‘Yes, they do it all the time,'” Facemire said. “I just want to know if Frontier has a problem with this bill we are talking about right now.”
“Yes,” Gregg answered. “As I said, if you pass the strike and insert (amendment), you have given the Public Service Commission authority to start the process of reverse re-issue. That’s fine. That’s a policy decision the state can make, but it doesn’t cure the problem of a conflict of existing West Virginia law with existing federal regulations.”
Gregg previously stated he was for the bill, “as it came from the House.”
Facemire then directed his dissatisfaction toward Frontier specifically: “I may be going a little off base here, but if (Frontier) would have provided the service to the citizens of West Virginia when (Frontier) came to this state promising what (it) would do, this wouldn’t still be an issue. The problem we have right now is the people who still don’t have broadband and can’t get it. So, we’re trying to find other avenues.”
Gregg responded that no company has done more to bring broadband access to more West Virginians than Frontier.
Facemire said in his 10 years serving in the Legislature, he’s dealt a lot with phone companies and broadband access issues.
“Ten years ago, you stood right here in this room and told us the reason your company should be allowed to do what it wanted to do was because your company was going to deliver broadband to the entire state of West Virginia,” Facemire told Gregg. “Now here we are 10 years later, and we are basically having the same argument.
“See, the trouble with monopolies, you want to take the good and not take care of the bad. I understand, in a lot of rural areas, it’s not going to be profitable. I get it. But, you have to take the bitter with the sweet. You have to serve the big (population) areas and the rural areas, “ Facemire said, adding he tires of hearing that citizens from many rural areas of the state still have no broadband service.
“If we don’t allow (other companies) to go into these areas, they may never get broadband,” Facemire told Gregg. “I take offense to (Frontier) coming up here trying to stop these bills to allow expansion of broadband in rural West Virginia. If you don’t want to do it, then get out of the way and let someone else do it.”
Gregg said broadband access in West Virginia has improved from 60 percent to 90 percent in the last 10 years.
“In just the last three years, 68,000 households have gotten new and upgraded broadband under our work,” Gregg said.
“I don’t have any way of disputing your numbers,” Facemire said. “But those 10 percent sure are doing a lot of bitching. We are hearing so much from so many people that it is hard for me to believe that it’s only 10 percent of the people.”
The West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council, commissioned by the West Virginia Legislature in 2016, views the expansion of broadband in the Mountain State as a way to improve economic development, education and health care in the state.
West Virginia lags well below the national average in broadband access.
A report by the Federal Communication Council in October 2017 shows West Virginia ranks No. 47 of 50 states in the nation in access to broadband Internet.
The FCC report says 554,124 West Virginians, or 30 percent of all state residents, do not have any access to broadband Internet. Further, the same FCC report shows 48 percent of West Virginians living in rural areas, as defined as an area with fewer than 2,500 residents, do not have access to broadband Internet.
Elaine Harris, representative of the Communications Workers of America, was called by council to testify, to “help clear things up,” Facemire said.
“We want to keep expansion of broadband moving forward,” Harris said. “But with pole attachments, from a standpoint of workers, there are safety concerns.”
“Is this bill critical to spreading broadband across West Virginia?” Facemire asked Harris.
“It’s a process,” she answered. “If you were to talk to the frontline people, this is an important piece of legislation. But as far as expanding broadband, which we support, for just anyone to be able to attach to a pole without a process or procedure, that’s very concerning to us.”
Facemire said he sees the bill as important to spread access, while acknowledging the need to do it safely.
“I don’t care who provides it and I don’t care who does the work,” he said. “I just want folks to have access to broadband. It’s important today.”