West Virginia consistently ranks among the worst states for Internet coverage and speeds. For example, Broadband Now Research earlier this year put West Virginia at 44th.
That is why the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) created optimism here and in other underserved states. The FCC is making available up to $20 billion to entice communications companies to expand broadband in rural areas.
The money is being allocated through a reverse auction; companies competed to see which ones could offer the best service at the lowest price. But when the results of the October auction were revealed recently, many West Virginians were surprised and disappointed.
That is because Frontier Communications Company led the nine winning providers with the bulk of the projects, potentially securing $245 million of the $362 million in bids. Frontier has a history of poor service and financial problems; the company is currently going through bankruptcy.
West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito, who has been a leader in expanding broadband and a backer of the RDOF, has gone directly to the FCC Chairman Ajit Pai with her concerns about Frontier.
“The stakes are simply too high to provide nearly $250 million to a company that does not have the capability to deliver on the commitment made to the FCC,” Capito wrote. “West Virginia cannot afford to be let down, yet again, by the failure of Frontier to deliver on promises made to federal partners.”
West Virginia’s State Senate followed up with its own complaint. Twenty-eight members of the Senate—Republicans and Democrats alike—called on Chairman Pai to take a closer look at Frontier’s application.
“Frontier Communications is a bankrupt company with a poor record of performance, bad customer service ratings, and a troubled history involving the previous utilization of taxpayer dollars,” the senators told Pai in a letter.
Frontier named a new executive chairman in September. The company hopes that John Stratton, a former Verizon Communications executive, can lead Frontier out of bankruptcy and restore customer trust.
Frontier’s success would be good for West Virginia, since it has nearly 300,000 customers in the state. However, there is no guarantee Frontier can be saved and investing $250 million intended to expand broadband here, which would require additional substantial spending by Frontier, is a dangerous gamble.
Chairman Pai is likely on his way out with the changing administrations, but there is still time for him to act. Senator Capito has ensured that Pai is familiar with West Virginia, knows our broadband challenges, and understands the unique opportunity presented by the RDOF to help our state catch up with technology.
Pai and his team should take a hard look at Frontier’s bid to make sure our state is not getting a pig in a poke.