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Justice unveils $1B broadband plan

CHARLESTON — The governor unveiled Friday a new $1 billion plan to upgrade and expand broadband internet in West Virginia.

“Today is a monumental day beyond belief,” Gov. Jim Justice said.

The initiative will accelerate the expansion of broadband, critical for the economic development of the state in the 21st century, to 200,000 homes in under-served areas of West Virginia, Justice said.

Funding will be combined from federal, state and local government sources and private-sector sources.

The plan, which Justice said will be the largest broadband investment in the history of West Virginia, will combine $236 million in the state broadband program with $362 million from the Federal Communications Commission funding and $120 million state and federal sources for a total of $718 million in funding expected by fall 2022.

Money will be allocated through programs which generate matching funds from private and local government partners to generate more than $1 billion in broadband investment, Justice said.

“We’re going to change the trajectory of West Virginia,” Justice said, sitting in front of a large group of legislators and state officials Friday.

Supporting him in a streamed broadcast were U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and U.S. Reps. Dave McKinley and Carol Miller, both R-W.Va. Officials likened the project to the 20th century interstate system that transformed the economic landscape of America.

The project will be a generational change, Manchin said.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we’re going to have,” he said.

McKinley cited the plight of students who have to rely on the internet, having to go to a school parking lot for service. It’s unconscionable, he said.

“This time you hit us a home run,” McKinley said to the governor.

Broadband is no longer a luxury, but a necessity, Gaylene Miller, director of AARP West Virginia, said. AARP stands ready to support the project, she said.

“It is essential infrastructure,” she said.

The program meets federal requirements to expand and improve broadband, said Mitch Carmichael, economic director under the governor.

“We’ve structured a program in order to put broadband high speed, gigabit fiber optic cable to homes in West Virginia that will enable distance learning, remote work, tele-health. All the things that are so incumbent on a 21st century economy,” Carmichael said. “And these are the tools that we have in place now to move forward to deploy those assets.”

The primary programs in the initiative are:

• Rural Digital Opportunity Fund: The FCC Rural Digital Opportunity Fund offers internet service providers funding to extend service to under-served areas. ISPs compete for grants to connect under-served census tracts, with each tract awarded to the ISP that can connect it with the least amount of federal subsidization.

• West Virginia State Broadband Initiative: Operated by the state Office of Broadband and Broadband Council using American Rescue Plan Act and state funds, the Capital Projects Fund includes $136 million for broadband in West Virginia, and which Justice placed before the Legislature on Friday meeting in special session, another $90 million in American Rescue Plan funding and $10 million from the state, providing in total $236 million for the state’s own competitive broadband projects initiative.

• Other federal and state funding sources are expected to contribute at least $120 million to broadband development, including the FCC, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Appalachian Regional Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. The state Office of Broadband and Broadband Council will coordinate with the programs. to ensure that state funds are allocated efficiently and maximum broadband coverage is obtained.

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