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Broadband sees bipartisan support

CHARLESTON — The West Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill Wednesday with near unanimous support by Republican and Democratic lawmakers to make it easier to expand high-speed broadband across the state.

House Bill 2002, relating to broadband, passed with 98 yay votes and one member absent. The only nay vote came from Del. Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock.

HB 2002 creates a statutory framework to support, encourage, and expedite the expansion of broadband throughout the state. It also creates additional consumer protections for reporting sub-par internet service.

“This bill represents our latest efforts in speeding the deployment of broadband and reducing the overall cost of expanding broadband service for West Virginians,” said House Technology and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Daniel Linville, R-Cabell.

The bill expedites permit processes for installing broadband along rights of way during Division of Highways projects. It improves “dig once” regulations that allow multiple internet service providers to install fiber broadband at the same time without digging multiple trenches. It also allows internet service providers to install broadband for any utility dig.

The Division of Highways would have to create a flow chart of regulating agencies to provide internet service providers to obtain a notice to proceed when it comes to broadband placement on highways projects. It creates a timetable for regulators to approve applications from internet service providers, automatically approving those projects if the regulator hasn’t come to a decision by a specific time.

The bill codifies the existence of the Office of Broadband within the Department of Commerce. The office was created late last year, but HB 2002 officially brings it to life and lays out its duties and shares some responsibilities with the Broadband Enhancement Council.

It defines “unserved” parts of the state as areas that only have one provider and do not have at least 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads, matching the Federal Communications Commission’s definition, as well as defines “underserved as areas with only two providers and less than 100 Mbps for downloads and 50 Mbps for uploads.

Consumer protections include required notifications to subscribers when prices increase, refunds or bill credits for internet outages due to no fault of the customer and empowers the Consumer Protection Division of the Attorney General’s Office to investigate complaints about service.

The bill also empowers the House Technology and Infrastructure Committee, the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Legislature’s Joint Committee on Technology authority to compel internet service providers to testify before the committees. Linville’s committee voted Feb. 24 to seek documents and testimony from Frontier Communications regarding its broadband projects, its federal grant funding, and its post-bankruptcy plans.

HB 2002 has vocal support from members of the House Democratic minority who see the bill as a bipartisan effort to expand broadband into rural parts of the state.

“It’s something that many of us have been somewhat crying in the wilderness about for a long time, and especially those of us that represent rural areas and living in rural areas,” said Del. Brent Boggs, D-Braxton. “It’s been frustrating at best.”

“This is something that we absolutely have to vote for. This is something we need to support,” said Del. Cody Thompson, D-Randolph. “Broadband and high speed internet access will be to West Virginia what the interstate highway was in the 1950s. It’s something we need to get moving on.”

Nine internet service providers were able to pull down $362.1 million last year for broadband expansion projects in 119,267 unserved Census tracts in West Virginia over the next 10 years through the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Phase I Auction. Republican lawmakers have also pledged to increase funding over the next three years for broadband expansion and have at least one bill moving to make permanent the removal of broadband loan insurance caps.

“We’ve got to do something on this,” Linville said. “I feel like this is the first step this year, and I don’t think it’s the last step that we will take this year. This bill … empowers us to do it ourselves. It lets West Virginians make decisions about the infrastructure that West Virginia needs.”

The next stop for HB 2002 is the state Senate.

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