CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginians with no Internet service would receive priority over broadband customers who want faster speeds, according to a bill revised in the Senate Wednesday. Frontier Communications, the state's largest broadband provider, had lobbied for the last-minute change. More than 85,000 households in West Virginia don't have Internet service. The revised bill requires the state Broadband Deployment Council to distribute state funds to companies that offer to bring broadband to communities for the first time -- before funding projects that increase Internet speeds at homes that already have service. "The highest-need areas will get money first," said Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, who introduced the amendment Wednesday. After a lengthy Senate floor debate, state lawmakers passed the change in a split vote Wednesday. Several senators argued that Plymale's amendment wasn't needed. They said faster Internet speeds and quality service also matter. And they predicted the change could force the state to give grant money for projects that only bring Internet service to a small number of homes at a high cost.The Broadband Deployment Council has more than $2 million that it plans to distribute this year for projects that expand high-speed Internet service. "I don't want to tie their hands," said Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson. But Sen. Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, who works for Frontier and voted in favor of the amendment, said it was unfair to pump state funds into projects that increase Internet speeds while 85,000 West Virginians go without broadband."The Broadband Council should focus on households that don't have broadband right now, not on upgrading homes that already have it," Carmichael said. "It's not speed. It's access." A Frontier spokesman declined comment on the Senate's change Wednesday. In February, Broadband Council members proposed a bill that would raise the state's minimum acceptable broadband download speed to 6 megabits per second -- up from 200 kilobits per second. The House of Delegates passed the legislation two weeks ago. Frontier has said that the bill would allow the state to subsidize competitors that want to bring faster service to areas where Frontier already makes high-speed Internet available. Frontier has spent tens of millions of dollars to bring broadband to 158,000 additional households in West Virginia since 2010, the company has said.
The Senate version of the bill would require the state to follow the federal government's lead when it comes to setting acceptable Internet speeds. Under that bill, West Virginia would require a minimum speed of 4 megabits per second, which is the current Federal Communications Commission standard. Higher speeds allow people to download web pages, music, video and online games more quickly. The Senate will take a final vote on the bill Thursday.Because the Senate's version differs from the House bill, the legislation would go to a conference committee where senators and House members would try to reach a compromise. Some senators said Wednesday that all West Virginians have access to the Internet through satellite providers that offer 5-megabit download speeds. But Carmichael said that satellite service has "latency" problems -- disruption or delays in Internet service when customers try to play online games and access websites. Reach Eric Eyre at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4869.