Broadband expansion advocates aren’t guaranteeing Gov. Jim Justice will sign House Bill 3093, despite the bill’s widespread bipartisan support throughout the legislative session.
“The one thing we do know is that it ain’t done until it’s done, and the clock is ticking,” said Gaylene Miller, the state director of AARP, which supports the bill.
Known as the broadband bill, HB 3093 is designed to generate competition among internet providers and expand broadband access through co-ops and other methods. The bill passed easily in both the Senate (31-1 vote) and the House (97-2 vote), but Justice has yet to make a move on it.
“We were excited to see it pass with bipartisan support, and we’re excited for Gov. Justice to move us past last place,” said Natalie Roper, executive director of Generation West Virginia, a young professionals group. “We hope he’ll pass it and realize how it could keep young people inside the state.”
Justice hasn’t indicated what action he would like to take for the broadband bill — Wednesday is the last day he can veto any bills — but in a news release last month he said he was in favor of broadband expansion. The release was regarding House Bill 2998, a bill allowing tax credits for providers that establish service in unserved areas of the state. It never made it out of the House.
“I want to make it clear that my administration fully supports HB 2998 because expanding broadband is essential to creating jobs and improving the quality of life in West Virginia,” Justice said in the release. “We need to do everything we can to expand last mile projects that are so critical to linking families and businesses directly to broadband.”
However, the crux of HB 3093’s opposition is Frontier Communications and other large cable companies. Justice has worked with and hired representatives of these companies since becoming governor.
Nick Casey, Justice’s Chief of Staff, has previously served as a lobbyist for the West Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association. Larry Puccio, a lobbyist for Frontier, served as chairman of Justice’s transition team and also lobbies for The Greenbrier resort and Southern Coal Corp. Mark Polen, who was a member of Justice’s transition policy committee, is executive director of the West Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association.
“We understand the larger providers are against it and they have a lot of influence,” said Chris Morris, vice president of CityNet, a smaller internet provider based in Bridgeport.
Justice Press Secretary Grant Herring did not respond for comment about if the governor or Casey had discussed vetoing the bill with Puccio, Polen or Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, a Frontier executive, since it passed the Senate. Carmichael’s office also did not respond to requests for comment.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Puccio said he has not discussed the broadband bill with Justice or Casey since it passed. He is strongly against the bill however, saying it would be “a terrible mistake” for the cable industry that would prioritize expanding service in underserved areas instead of addressing unserved areas first.
In an email, Polen did not disclose if he had talked with the governor’s office about the bill since it passed, but raised concerns that were similar to Puccio’s.
“...we believe that the state’s efforts should be focused on ensuring that the areas of our state without broadband service should be the priority for the Legislature rather than on providing benefits to commercial providers that want to overbuild private investment in areas already having service,” he wrote.
The broadband bill allows up to 20 families or businesses to form nonprofit co-ops that provide a broadband service. It also authorizes up to three cities or counties to band together and build broadband networks.
“It gives communities the tools to take a problem like a slow internet connection into their own hands,” Roper said. “People can work together and pool private resources in order to fix it.”
One particularly contested aspect of the bill is it allowing small providers, like CityNet, easier access to telecommunication poles owned by utilities to expand and improve their service.
According to a statement provided by Frontier spokesman Andy Malinoski, Frontier supports expanded broadband access, but said West Virginia “does not have the legal authority to regulate pole attachments.”
An FCC report ranked the Mountain State 48th in broadband availability.
“I think it’s an area that has to be improved,” Morris said. “Broadband is already critical with every aspect of our lives.”
Removed from the original bill is language that would have prevented providers from advertising maximum download speeds, which expansion advocates say deceives customers.
Although the bill doesn’t have all of its original language, Roper said the bill’s passing is critical if West Virginia wants to improve internet speeds and help keep young people in the state.
“A veto would send a really bad message,” she said.