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Bill to create $72 million broadband network moving forward at Capitol

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — At Tuesday’s Broadband Day at the Capitol, a bill to create a $72 million dollar state-run broadband network was advanced by the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The legislation would allow the state to build a 2,500-mile fiber-optic loop aiming to improve Internet service and drive down prices for both business and residential customers.

“The bill is general revenue neutral,” explained Putnam County state Sen. Chris Walters on how it would be paid for. “So zero from general revenue. And the reason why is if the network can prove to be self-sustaining, then we can get a performance bond. If it’s (not self-sustaining), there will be no bond.”

Walters explained that West Virginia has a reputation for poor broadband service, affecting hospitals and students using the Internet for their homework.

“West Virginia has the largest homework gap in the nation. When a kid goes home to do homework, they can’t access the internet to do that,” he said. “There are hundreds of millions of dollars through the federal government available to close the homework gap.”

According to a report released by the FCC last January, West Virginia ranked 47th in access to broadband internet, with 57 percent of the population not having access to the 25/3 speed benchmark of 25 megabits per second for downloads, and 3 megabits per second for uploads.

Only Montana, Arkansas and Vermont had a worse percentage.

“This is a marathon, it’s not a sprint,” said Clay County Del. Roger Hanshaw. “We’ll be on this topic for a while. When we talk about the notion of improving internet access across our state, this is but one of a number of things the legislature is looking at this year with respect to how we make sure people are served.”

Walters felt that opponents of the bill weren’t in favor of the competition it would create.

“They’re against it because they don’t want increased competition,” Walters said. “This bill would give an interstate system so competition could increase. If you look at (Charleston) or (Morgantown), where you have one cable company provider, that’s not how it is in the rest of the United States.”

Walters pointed out that Parkersburg, which has more than one cable provider, has the fastest and most affordable internet access in the state.

“This bill would increase competition, which is what we need,” Walters said.

The legislation now moves to the Senate Government Organization Committee.

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