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WV broadband bill nears finish line

West Virginia lawmakers have worked out a comprehensive broadband bill that aims to improve and expand high-speed internet across the state.

The Senate voted 31-1 Friday to pass a bill (HB 3093) that allows up to 20 families or businesses to form nonprofit co-ops that provide broadband service in areas shunned by internet providers. The legislation also authorizes up to three cities or counties to band together and build broadband networks.

The bill’s supporters predict increased competition will lead to faster internet speeds and lower prices for consumers.

“This legislation will enable and encourage development of high-quality broadband services, which is a critical issue facing our state,” said Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley.

Cable companies and Frontier Communications, which is West Virginia’s largest internet provider, opposed the bill. The firms argued that the state should solely target areas without broadband — and not try to spur broadband projects in areas that already have the service.

The legislation also makes it easier for start-up internet firms to secure access to utility poles — a provision the larger companies wanted lawmakers to scratch from the bill.

“It’s for providing access to smaller carriers,” Blair said. “It makes it so they can have an easier opportunity to have access to the poles to be able to string fiber or cable.”

Frontier lobbyists warned that the new federal rules in the works might conflict with the expedited pole procedures detailed in the bill.

The legislation also would authorize the state to back loans to smaller internet providers that want to bring broadband service to rural areas. The firms would be eligible for loan guarantees of up to $10 million. The West Virginia Economic Development Authority would administer the program.

The loan guarantees would be available only for projects designed to bring high-speed internet to areas with no existing broadband service.

Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, was the lone senator to vote against the bill Friday, saying the state could be left on the hook if internet firms default on their loans.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, a Frontier Communications executive, voted for the bill. He recused himself from the debate over the legislation before the vote.

The Senate eliminated a section of the bill that barred deceptive advertising by internet firms, so the legislation will go back to the House of Delegates, which passed the legislation last month. The House is expected to OK the change.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4869 or follow @ericeyre on Twitter.

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