CHARLESTON, W.Va. — State Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher says he’d like to see Gov. Jim Justice sign a broadband bill into law.
“I don’t think there’s any question that if West Virginia is going to proper, accessibility to broadband is critical,” Thrasher said today on MetroNews’ Talkline.
“I believe this legislation does just that. It frees up entrepreneurial efforts.”
— MetroNews (@WVMetroNews) April 25, 2017
The governor just received the broadband bill last Thursday. It passed the House of Delegates 97-2 on March 24 and then passed the Senate 31-1 on April 7.
The governor’s decision is being watched carefully both by groups that view the bill as benefiting consumers and private businesses that provide high-speed internet service.
The bill is set up to expand broadband internet service in West Virginia in several ways:
It sets up a system meant to help local co-ops form and take out loans to establish broadband infrastructure in their communities. It also broadens the abilities of the state Broadband Enhancement Council. And it provides more flexibility for the use of utility poles.
Justice has said in recent days that opposing sides have been asking him to either sign or veto the bill.
“You’ve got overwhelming support but it’s really odd. You’ve got a lot of people on both sides of the fence that say ‘We voted for it, but will you please veto it?’ It’s the craziest stuff in the world. I’ve never seen anything this crazy,” the governor said in an interview with Joe Stevens on “The Valley Today” on WMOV radio.
“On this one, there’s truly a lot of people on both sides of the fence. I’m trying to analyze it as fairly as I possibly can. At the end of the day, we need broadband to our people in the worst way.”
One point of contention has been whether the bill should focus efforts on areas that don’t have internet service at all.
Asked this Monday about Frontier’s position as the governor considers the bill, company spokesman Andy Malinoski provided a statement that indicated a desire to work toward public-private partnerships and to improve broadband access in areas that don’t already have it.
But, the statement said, efforts should focus on areas that aren’t served at all.
“Frontier is committed to the continued expansion of broadband and improvement of its network, and supports successful public-private partnerships. We believe the investment of public dollars should expand broadband access to unserved markets in West Virginia,” Malinoski stated.
Thrasher said that although the bill would empower communities and entrepreneurs to form co-ops to take out loans for internet infrastructure, they wouldn’t necessarily have an advantage over existing providers.
“I don’t think this legislation gives new providers an advantage that existing carriers do not have,” Thrasher said. “They still are borrowing that money on their own. They are not in any way subsidized.”
Thrasher added, “Competition is a beautiful thing.”
The state does back up the loans through the state Economic Development Office. Thrasher said the projects would be vetted and those who take out the loans would be on the hook before the state is.
“This is a backup to a loan. It’s very different from a subsidy. If those loans fail, that person who took out the loan will suffer significant consequences before the state does.”
During debate over the bill in the Senate, Senator Mike Romano expressed concerns about the potential for the state to be on the hook. Romano was the only senator who voted against the bill.
That’s a concern that Justice also expressed.
“And we don’t need to get ourselves into a situation where we’re just guaranteeing these suppliers, just lucrative contracts and just causing ourselves a big issue,” Justice said on WMOV.
Thrasher said he doesn’t know what the governor will do, although he would encourage him to sign the bill.
“The governor always weighs all sides of issues. That is his decision we have not had a long discussion about it,” Thrasher said.
“When you look at the tallies in both houses, you recognize this is legislation that has broad appeal.”