Broadband expansion announcement turns political

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers and statewide elected officials announced a plan Thursday they say will encourage the private sector to get more involved in the expansion of broadband in West Virginia but U.S. Senator Joe Manchin called the announcement “misleading.”

Governor Justice

Justice signed an executive order that will make the state sort of a co-signer when companies go after federal money for the build out. The order eliminates the current regulatory caps on the West Virginia Broadband Infrastructure Loan Insurance program and the regulatory caps per provider.

State Senate President Mitch Carmichael said that will encourage more internet providers to bid for federal funds available through the Federal Communications Commission’s new Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) program.

The FCC will receive bids this fall from providers interested in expanding broadband with federal money over a 10-year period. The winner bidder guarantees a certain amount of the funding. In former programs that has been a hurdle in getting companies interested. Justice’s executive order will allow the state to step in and provide insurance for those bids without the current caps on the program.

“In order for this to really flow, we need to increase the cap,” Justice said, adding he’ll introduce legislation in next year’s legislative session to do so. He’s limited in his executive order to eliminate current caps not increase them.

The FCC has made available more than $760 million for West Virginia where there’s not high-speed broadband. The program would create access to 121,000 homes. Carmichael said the state needs the help of the federal government.

“But for the federal funding for these very remote homes in these very remote Census blocks, there would never be a private sector entity that would provide services in these areas,” Carmichael said.

Justice was joined for the virtual announcement by Republicans and Democrats. Among the speakers were state Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, Senator Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, and state Treasurer John Perdue, also a Democrat.

Manchin challenges announcement

Manchin, who backs Justice challenger Democrat Ben Salango, issued a statement calling the announcement misleading.

Joe Manchin

“West Virginia is not getting $766 million in federal funds through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund just because the Governor signed an Executive Order saying he wants it to happen. Unfortunately, as of the most recent FCC report on September 1st, there isn’t even a single Internet Service Provider in the state that’s eligible to bid on this funding right now,” Manchin said.

U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito, a Justice supporter, praised the move.

“The governor’s executive order is great news for West Virginia and will help ensure that local internet service providers are able to compete in the upcoming RDOF auction this fall,” Capito said, adding the announcement was “an innovative federal-state partnership that will hopefully allow more local providers to successfully bid on the majority of the RDOF census tracts in the state”

Both Capito and Manchin have had ongoing efforts to improve broadband in the state. Manchin has challenged FCC coverage maps and urged residents to take part in speed tests while Capito has what’s called the Capito Connect initiative.Plymale gave Justice credit for working with lawmakers to get the program moving.

“I’m really tired of people outside the state making decisions for us on broadband that we do not have a say in. This is the governor taking the reins and really making decisions that help,” Plymale said.

Justice said the move is a bipartisan one.

“Everybody has come together with the ideas. This is anything but a Jim Justice idea in its entirety. I just see the beauty of this gigantic deal for West Virginia,” Justice said.

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