A governor-appointed panel and two nonprofit groups are urging West Virginia lawmakers to put broadband internet expansion back on the front burner with a long-term goal of bringing gigabit service to every household and business in the state.
Three weeks into the legislative session, lawmakers have yet to take up a single bill that aims to boost internet speeds or expand high-speed broadband to additional homes.
“We’re losing a generation of highly educated, skilled workers and entrepreneurs that are leaders in the digital economy,” said Natalie Roper, executive director of Generation West Virginia, a young professionals group. “They have moved to other states that have invested in high-speed internet infrastructure.”
Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said Tuesday that at least two broadband-related bills are in the works, and lawmakers expect to introduce legislation in the coming days. The Senate bill would offer tax credits for companies to help recoup costs of bringing internet to remote areas, said Carmichael, an executive with internet provider Frontier Communications. The bill also may authorize the state to provide loan guarantees to internet firms that plan to expand broadband service.
Carmichael said some internet providers want legislation designed to bring internet service to households that don’t currently have it, while other companies support measures that would increase internet speeds.
“We want to [encourage] competition,” Carmichael said. “If we’re going to do investment of any type, it should go to the areas that have no service.”
Generation West Virginia, AARP West Virginia and the state Broadband Enhancement Council held a press conference at the state Capitol Tuesday to raise awareness about the importance of high-speed internet service and to unveil a plan — called Gig Ready — to bolster support for broadband expansion.
“This initiative is an opportunity to bring a broad audience to the same table, mutually agreeing on one common goal of moving forward with that common goal as the driving force to developing public-private projects, encouraging investment and shaping policy,” said Rob Hinton, president of the Broadband Enhancement Council.
West Virginia ranks 48th in the nation when it comes to the availability of broadband internet service, according to a press release from Generation West Virginia. More than 544,000 West Virginians don’t have adequate broadband service, the group said.
Gaylene Miller, AARP’s state director, said older adults rely on the internet to stay connected.
“AARP believes an aggressive broadband deployment strategy should include specific targets in terms of broadband penetration, coverage and usage, and establish our state as a leader in providing all citizens with access to the fastest and most affordable broadband services,” Miller said.
In last year’s legislative session, former state Sen. Chris Walters, R-Putnam, spearheaded a bill that would have created a state-funded broadband network, but the legislation never gained any traction in the House of Delegates. Walters, who also introduced broadband expansion bills in previous years, lost his Senate seat to Democrat Glenn Jeffries in the November election.
Broadband proponents are now looking for other lawmakers to fill Walters’ shoes and introduce legislation that spurs building broadband infrastructure.
Carmichael said there’s no support this year in the Legislature for a state-run broadband network.
Reach Eric Eyre at email@example.com, 304-348-4869 or follow @ericeyre on Twitter.