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Christmas odds and ends

Last week, I pointed out an angle of attack the Democrats could use in 2022 against Republican lawmakers and 2020 candidates who stood on the steps of the Capitol and pledged $1 billion for broadband expansion.

Again, they got to that $1 billion number by including the up to $766 million the state could have pulled down in the first phase of the Federal Communication Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction, the $50 million the state originally set aside from the C.A.R.E.S. Act for broadband expansion, and $150 million spread out over three years allocated by the Legislature itself.

In reality, the state only pulled down $362 million from the RDOF auction phase two and $33 million from the C.A.R.E.S. Act for broadband (though a possible new coronavirus relief package could allow the state to keep the remaining money it received form the initial $1.25 billion for COVID-19 expenses). Assuming the Legislature keeps its word on the $150 million over three years starting in July when fiscal year 2022 starts, all of that adds up to more than $500 million – half a billion short of the pledge.

While all of that is true, it leaves out that West Virginia has received a huge amount of federal investment for broadband expansion over the last several years, more than making up for the money the state wasn’t able to pull down through RDOF or spend through C.A.R.E.S. This is in large part due to the state congressional delegation, and particularly because of the two West Virginians on the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee – U.S. Senators Shelley Moore Capito and Joe Manchin.

For example, $400 million was set aside this fiscal year for West Virginia through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Broadband ReConnect program. This covers the costs of loans and grants for broadband expansion projects. So far, $40.8 million has been given out between 2019 and 2020 through USDA broadband expansion programs.

Add loans and grants from the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Community Development Block Grant program through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, West Virginia received $46.5 million in broadband funding between 2019 and 2020, with additional monies available. That puts West Virginia back in the $1 billion pledge range.

I don’t imagine this positive news will stop someone from an attack ad against some random Republican incumbent, but I did feel the need to look at the glass as half-full versus half-empty.

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Speaking of broadband, there is a growing chorus of voices raising concerns with Frontier Communications being the largest recipient of RDOF dollars considering the numerous complaints against Frontier about their level of internet service. That’s not counting the West Virginia Public Service Commission’s audit of Frontier over what some believe is sub-standard phone service.

Of the $362.1 million the state was able to pull down in RDOF dollars, the largest amount, $247.6 million, went to Frontier Communications. Capito sent a letter to the FCC last week asking them to closely scrutinize Frontier’s winning bid. The state Senate – specifically a bipartisan group of 22 sitting state senators and seven senators-elect – also sent a letter to the FCC Wednesday. Members of the House Technology and Infrastructure Committee – led by new Chairman Daniel Linville, R-Cabell — sent a similar letter Thursday.

“It was with high hopes and great expectations for improved broadband service throughout our state that we observed the Phase I auction of RDOF funds,” the state senators wrote. “Unfortunately, our excitement was short-lived when we learned that nearly 70 percent of those funds were to be rewarded to Frontier Communications … a provider that has consistently failed in delivering reliable internet and telephone service (in) West Virginia.”

Capito and the West Virginia Senate are right to raise concerns (and I’m told the House might have a similar letter coming as well). Keep in mind, an unholy alliance a decade ago between Frontier and the state largely left West Virginia in a lurch.

In 2009, the state applied for a $126 million stimulus grant through the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program for broadband expansion in West Virginia. Frontier, the sub-recipient of the grant, was supposed to build middle-mile fiber connections and allow competitors to also access these lines at lower rates.

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