Over objections from West Virginia’s largest internet providers, the House of Delegates overwhelmingly passed a comprehensive broadband bill Friday that aims to improve internet service and expand availability.
House members voted 97-2 to send the legislation (HB 3093) to the state Senate.
“This is a bill that’s intended to promote the expansion of broadband services across West Virginia,” said Delegate Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay. “It’s applicable everywhere. It will allow people who don’t have service to get access to that service.”
The legislation would authorize a pilot project in which three cities or counties could join together to build a broadband network and offer internet service to customers. The bill also would permit 20 or more families or businesses to form nonprofit co-ops that would provide internet service in rural areas.
Frontier Communications and cable internet providers like Suddenlink oppose those measures, saying they would promote broadband in places that already have the service.
Hanshaw disputed that assertion, while holding up a copy of a letter that internet providers circulated in the House chamber Friday. Hanshaw had marked up the letter with a red pen.
“This bill is intended to promote competition, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s a bill intended to do so in places where no competition exists,” he said.
Frontier and cable internet providers also object to a section of the bill that bars companies from advertising “up to” or potential maximum speeds. The internet providers said the legislation blocks them from promoting their services.
The bill’s supporters argue that the prohibition limits deceptive advertising.
“It requires providers engaged in marketing activities to provide a minimum or guaranteed level of speed, rather than a theoretical maximum speed,” Hanshaw said.
The legislation also expands the powers of the state Broadband Enhancement Council, giving the panel the authority to receive and distribute grant money. The council also will be asked to create maps of broadband service in West Virginia. The state ranks 48th in the nation for broadband availability.
“We learned the horror stories of people who have moved to West Virginia to locate a business here based upon [outdated and inaccurate] service maps floating around, only to find out the service may not be what was represented,” Hanshaw said.
Delegates Michael Folk, R-Berkeley, and Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, were the only two delegates to vote against the bill.
The legislation could face roadblocks in the Senate, whose president, Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, also works as a sales manager for Frontier Communications.
Reach Eric Eyre at email@example.com, 304-348-4869 or follow @ericeyre on Twitter.