Aug. 16–CHARLESTON, W. Va. — The West Virginia Broadband Deployment Council has started accepting applications for $4 million in funding designed to spread high-speed Internet to rural areas.
Applicants have until Sept. 14 to submit proposals. The council plans to distribute grants to groups that provide broadband coverage to rural communities, or those groups that sponsor initiatives to encourage people to sign up for high-speed Internet.
The state Legislature established the broadband council and allocated the grant money four years ago.
“We’re very excited to finally have the opportunity to make sure every person and business in West Virginia will have access to broadband,” said council Chairman Dan O’Hanlon.
Two dozen nonprofit groups and telecommunication companies already have registered and downloaded applications.
“We seem to have a good number of groups that appear to us want to build out fiber, and groups that want to increase the use of broadband in areas that already have fiber,” O’Hanlon said.
On Monday, the council started accepting applications online at www. broadbandgrants. wv. gov. As of Wednesday afternoon, no applications had been submitted.
Earlier this year, council members said they expected to have $3. 3 million to distribute, but the council learned Wednesday that it has $4. 2 million in its budget.
The Legislature allocated $5 million to the council, which has paid consultants $800,000 over the past four years. The council doesn’t have an office or staff members.
The broadband council expects to pay an additional $200,000 to a Ebensburg, Pa. -based consulting firm, L. R. Kimball, which is reviewing grant applications. Kimball’s consultants previously created an online map that shows broadband coverage in West Virginia.
After the Sept. 14 deadline, the council plans to post applicant names and project descriptions on the Secretary of State’s website.
A short time later, the Broadband Deployment Council will accept “competing applications” — filed by groups that want to do similar projects in the same rural area — for the next 60 days.
Council members acknowledged Wednesday it’s unusual to accept competing grant applications, but they noted that state law requires reopening the selection process.
By early September, a team of Kimball consultants will rate projects and pass suggestions along to a broadband council subcommittee, which will make recommendations to the full board.
The council plans to take a final vote at a November or December meeting.
West Virginia’s 12 regional planning and development councils will assist businesses and nonprofits with broadband grant applications. The state will reimburse the development councils for their work — at $90 an hour, if the state broadband council funds the project.
“We hope we’ll get applications from all over West Virginia to fill in any gaps that might exist in our broadband map,” O’Hanlon said.
Also at Wednesday’s council meeting:
– Sen. Bob Williams, D-Taylor, said he has fielded complaints about the state’s ongoing $126. 3 million broadband expansion project, which is designed to bring high-speed fiber-optic cable to schools, libraries and other public facilities.
“Who’s in charge? ” asked Williams, who serves on the broadband council. “I get a sense we have a lot of worker bees and no one who knows what’s going on. ”
Erica Mani, deputy chief of staff for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, said state homeland security chief Jimmy Gianato serves as the project’s administrator. Gianato also heads a three-member “grant implementation team. ” West Virginia received a federal stimulus grant to pay for the project in 2010.
– Dana Waldo, who heads Frontier Communication’s West Virginia office, said fiber construction on the $126. 3 million project is back on schedule, despite delays caused by the June 29 derecho windstorm that knocked out power across the state. Frontier, which is installing the fiber at the state’s request, has until Feb. 13 to complete construction, or the state would have to return unspent funds to the federal government.
“There is no issue with us completing this grant on time,” Waldo said.
Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette. com or 304-348-4869.