CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Governor Jim Justice is still considering whether he’ll sign or veto a bill meant to expand broadband access in rural areas.
“We’re working on it. There’s a lot of moving parts here. There are a lot of people who are lined up on both sides of the fence,” Justice said in a MetroNews interview Monday evening.
He added, “I just have a little more to do as far as trying to figure it out.”
That means the lobbying isn’t over for groups on either side of the issue. The groups that back the broadband bill in West Virginia are urging their members to show their support to the governor.
“We’ve seen widespread community support for this issue and we want to make sure the governor’s office is hearing from the citizens and communities that need access to high speed internet,” said Natalie Roper, the executive director of Generation West Virginia.
The organization, which advocates for young citizens, has been sending messages to its members that say “The broadband bill hangs in the balance.”
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.
“We had bipartisan support that was really significant,” Justice said Monday evening. “We all want broadband access to the last mile to the people who really, really need it in this state. We need to expand it in every way.”
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.
Frontier Communications and the cable industry have been critical of some aspects of the bill. Justice advisor Larry Puccio has been a lobbyist for Frontier.
One point of contention has been whether the bill should focus efforts on areas that don’t have internet service at all. During a public hearing in March, Frontier government affairs manager Kathy Cosco said the bill provides too much leeway for areas that are served already.
“When you spend tax payer dollars on state resources to focus on areas that already have broadband, just so those consumers can have a third or fourth choice, you are denying and depriving service to those who have nothing,” Cosco said then.
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.
“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.
“Like other interested parties, we are awaiting any action the Governor takes on HB 3093,” Malinoski stated.
At the same public hearing where Cosco discussed the bill, state Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher spoke in support of its potential for bringing internet to unserved areas and competition to underserved areas.
“It’s absolutely fundamental to the future of West Virginia, particularly those smaller, rural, under-served areas to be about to have broadband and allow them to prosper and thrive going forward,” Thrasher said.
State Delegate Roger Hanshaw, who sponsored the bill, said on Monday that he spoke with the Justice administration during the final hours of the legislative session and asked for assurances that the bill was in a condition the governor could accept.
“I did, as the lead sponsor of the bill, expressly offer to accommodate the governor’s concerns. I was told ‘We are OK with the language; send it down,'” said Hanshaw, R-Clay.
“I just took ‘em at their word that they were. I personally am not sounding an alarm. As far as I know what the governor’s office told me is still solid.”
Hanshaw said the co-ops enabled by the bill could not only provide a framework for investment in local broadband structure but also would become customers of bigger internet providers.
“They put together the local infrastructure to provide internet service. They still have to have some connection out to the internet, out to the backbone,” Hanshaw said. “It baffles me that a large provider would be opposed to these co-ops forming.”
Generation West Virginia is promoting the broadband bill as a critical tool for West Virginia communities.
“We don’t see any reason why the governor’s office shouldn’t be in support of this bill. This is critical action that can be taken now to move West Virginia off of last on the list of internet access in the country,” Roper said.
“This gives tools to communities to allow them to take this problem into their own hands.
Roper called the bill a way to encourage young, talented West Virginians to stay.
“Young people are leaving West Virginia. Young West Virginians and all West Virginians depend on internet for health, education, for civic participation,” she said.
“A veto of this bill would send a terrible message about the priorities of this state. We can’t afford to do that when too many people go elsewhere for opportunity.”
AARP of West Virginia also has lobbied in favor of the broadband bill.
Gaylene Miller, the state director for AARP, said the organization favors aspects of the bill giving more autonomy to the Broadband Enhancement Council and encouraging co-ops.
“I would encourage the governor to sign the bill because it is good public policy,” Miller said.
“It would allow communities to be part of the solution and not wait on somebody to bring broadband to them. It’s a consumer-friendly bill. I don’t think we can let perfect get in the way of good. I hope he signs the bill for the state of West Virginia to move forward.”
Reporter Alex Thomas contributed to this story.