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Photo Courtesy/WV Legislative Photography TESTIMONY — Kelly Workman, director of the Office of Broadband, and Department of Economic Development Secretary Mitch Carmichael gave a testimony Wednesday on a broadband expansion bill.

CHARLESTON — A priority bill for the West Virginia House of Delegates dealing with broadband expansion came under scrutiny by a Senate committee Wednesday.

The Senate Economic Development Committee recommended House Bill 4001, relating generally to broadband, for passage Wednesday, though the bill still must go through the Senate Finance Committee and be placed before the Senate before the end of the session at midnight Saturday.

HB 4001 has changed a good deal since being introduced at the beginning of the session on Jan. 12 and taken up the next day by the House Technology and Infrastructure Committee. Originally a bill aimed at both broadband expansion and providing oversight for the Department of Economic Development, the oversight commission created in the bill was stripped out.

Now, the bill deals exclusively with broadband. HB 4001 creates a number of funds that can be used for extending fiber lines, broadband expansion projects, expanding wireless projects, GigReady incentive projects, and more.

An amendment adopted by the committee Wednesday incorporates Senate Bill 494, creating Broadband Carrier Neutral and Open Access Infrastructure Development Fund.

HB 4001 requires mapping of underground disturbances of rights of way for consideration of fiber line installation, and mapping of utility poles for attaching fiber. It also includes consumer protections, such as requirements for credits to customers who have service interruptions exceeding 24 hours, requirements for 30-day’s notice to customers of changes to service and requirements for written notice to customers that any unresolved issues can be filed as a complaint with the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division.

The bill prohibits internet service providers from charging certain fees to customers, such as charging for paper bills. No ISP can require a customer to rent the company’s modems. It also requires telecommunications companies to receive eligible telecommunications carriers status with the state Public Service Commission.

The bill empowers the Attorney General’s Office to check with the FCC to determine any specific commitments and obligations made by companies regarding broadband and require companies to meet those obligations. The bill empowers the PSC to fine any company that misrepresents its compliance once a hearing is conducted. Companies would also be inligible for future state grants.

“That is what I have called on my side of the aisle the provider death penalty,” said House Technology and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, the lead sponsors of HB 4001.

“If the Public Service Commission has determined that someone has taken hundreds of millions of dollars and not done what it is they are paid to do by material misrepresentation, until they correct that lie and make good on their word and build and serve what it is they were paid to build and serve, this would say they would not be able to participate in any future grant programs of this state until they do what they were paid to do,” Linville said.

During Wednesday testimony morning, commission Chairwoman Charlotte Lane said the eligible telecommunications carriers status portion of the bill is problematic and would make more sense if the PSC handled all aspects of the process, including compliance and consumer protection.

“I think that the Public Service Commission is well equipped to handle all provisions of the bill that relate to both the Public Service Commission and the Attorney General. We have done it in the past. We do consumer complaints. We deal with telecommunications providers. If you want to eliminate duplication, then anything that you want to do in this bill the Public Service Commission can do.”

Kelly Workman, director of the Office of Broadband, said these regulations go far and beyond what the federal government requires, which could scare off potential internet services providers.

“This seems broad,” Workman said. “Our concern is we do not want to see legislation in the State of West Virginia that is over and above the federal regulation; any regulations that would impede our ability to get people connected…we would not grant funds to an organization that is under investigation or that there are some serious findings about, but we do have concerns.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, also is a member of the Senate Economic Development Committee. During questions of the Department of Economic Development Secretary Mitch Carmichael, Tarr said he was concerned about the bill running late in the session with a possible cost that could warrant the bill coming before the Senate Finance Committee.

“This has a second reference to Finance, so given the time we’re in with the session right now with this bill, it is my hope we can work out the financial stuff in this committee as it goes through so we don’t have to have a second committee reference,” Tarr said.

West Virginia was assigned $1.35 billion from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act, which can be used for broadband infrastructure projects. The state is getting a separate $138 million for broadband expansion. Another $678 million is going to counties and municipalities which can be used for broadband expansion.

Last year, the Department of Economic Development created several loan and grant programs to expand broadband in unserved parts of the state that are not already being worked on through other federal programs. Since launching the programs last June, the department has received 125 applications from internet services providers for 225,000 homes of the 300,000 homes that are without broadband.

Carmichael said yearly broadband bills making major changes while internet service providers are still working their way through the broadband bills from the previous year would discourage companies from expanding services in the state.

“Your goal is to provide internet to everyone in West Virginia…and the programs you put in place over the last several years and the changes you made to poll attachment data and requirements have been amazing and generated great results,” Carmichael said. “There is a concern that once we do a broadband bill per year that there is no certainty and there is no predictability with those programs.”

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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