West Virginia really needs improved broadband connectivity. The state Senate passed a bill with that goal today twice.
The first included an amendment that would have established several funds to direct public investment. The second vote came after that amendment was backed out of the bill over apparent concern over how private internet companies would react.
“My number one goal is to get fiber on the poles everywhere in the state of West Virginia,” Senate President Craig Blair said tonight.
Broadband was a commonly-discussed priority leading into the legislative session. What resulted was one main bill, House Bill 2002, that has a variety of functions aimed at improving internet service.
Aspects of the bill are intended to expedite rights of way, produce a broadband availability map and compel high-speed internet providers to submit to greater legislative oversight. It also lays out some of the powers and responsibilities of the state Office of Broadband.
The bill lays out what it means to be unserved. It would require a broadband operator to credit subscribers for service interruptions of more than 24 hours.
Senator Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, had proposed an amendment funds aimed at financial improvements for broadband service. They would have been vessels to allocate future funding from the state or federal government.
The amendment was considered two days ago and narrowly voted down. But some senators, particularly Robert Karnes, a Republican representing Randolph County, said they would like to take another look.
Plymale offered it again earlier today, and the amendment was adopted on a voice vote.
But then concerns prompted the senators to reconsider the amendment.
Blair said that was “feedback that came from the sector on building out this broadband.”
Senator Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, wanted to know more details about who was driving the concern.
“I’d like to stand up before we vote and tell me what happened in the last few hours, who has the power to come in here and shake things up to the detriment of the citizens of our great state. Who are those people?” Woelfel asked. “Who has the power to do that?”
Senate Finance Chairman Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, spent several minutes asking Plymale about the bill, seeming to be genuinely torn about the best path.
His concern seemed to be that if public dollars are aimed at broadband infrastructure whether that would erode enthusiasm for private investors. For example, if a private company planned investment could it find itself competing with a co-op backed by the strength of public funding? And if the private company joined in infrastructure development with the public project, would its reputation be affected?
“I keep hearing industry objects to this and they’ll pull back and not hit those rural areas,” Tarr said. “Why would they say that if it’s not the case?”
Plymale said he intended his amendment to provide options.
“The bill as it’s been amended from the House over here is a good bill,” Plymale said. “But I think this amendment makes it a better bill.”
The bill passed without the amendment, but Blair said the issue could be revisited if broadband expansion gains momentum.
Broadband access has received heightened attention in West Virginia since the coronavirus pandemic caused so many people to work or learn from home. Social distancing recommendations made clear the importance of having reliable connectivity for working, learning or reaching out to loved ones.
“We have been talking about it all session. And after a year of pandemic life, we certainly understand the need for access to high-speed Internet,” said Angela Vance, associate state director for advocacy for AARP West Virginia.
“We applaud the Legislature for taking time and putting a lot of energy into this bill.”
.@AVanceAARP, @AARPWV https://t.co/rn6maOBVPd. Associate State Director for Advocacy, talks with @DaveWilsonMN about the broadband bill, and how this bill would benefit https://t.co/rn6maOBVPd. WATCH: https://t.co/yCFQ3nDJuy pic.twitter.com/4hiDdTVPVj
— MetroNews (@WVMetroNews) April 8, 2021