An opportunity for West Virginia’s cities, towns and counties to fund broadband development in unserved and underserved areas soon will become available through the state Development Office.
The West Virginia Development Office is expanding its Community Development Block Grant program to include broadband access for areas in need, its project development manager Kelly Workman said at the state Broadband Enhancement Council’s monthly meeting. The Development Office will coordinate the projects with the Broadband Enhancement Council and the state Office of GIS Coordination.
The state plans to dedicate $700,000 of its roughly $12.3 million in CDBG funding for the 2017 fiscal year to broadband development, according to Workman. Leftover funding from water and sewer projects would also be put toward broadband development as well, Workman said. She estimates that would total about $800,000, giving West Virginia $1.5 million in CDBG funds to work with for broadband enhancement.
Eligible activities for the funding include the expansion of cellular or wireless broadband coverage, the installation of fiber backbone and improving service in economic development areas and business anchors, according to Workman. The maximum amount for grants related to construction, pilot or demonstration projects is $300,000 per applicant, she said. For planning-related grants, the maximum is $30,000 per applicant, she added.
Workman said bringing broadband into the CDBG fold represents a “significant shift” for West Virginia because the state has always dedicated the funds to water and sewer infrastructure improvements.
“I’ve managed this program for about five years, and we’ve just done water and sewer,” Workman said. “That’s it. But we’ve found we don’t have the same level of competency and comfort with broadband as other states.”
All state municipalities and counties are eligible, except for entitlement cities already receiving funding directly from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development through the CDBG program, she said.
The funding will be available from Oct. 30 through June 30, 2018, or until all funds are depleted, Workman said. Additional funding will become available as existing projects wrap up and grant funding is recovered, she added.
Planning projects must be completed within one year, and construction projects must be completed in two years, according to Workman. She said any job creation goals must be achieved within two years of the project’s completion.
Workman said the state would like to have the CDBG funding help two to four broadband projects in the 2017 fiscal year.
Across the nation, CDBG funding often goes toward local programs that provide resources for low- and moderate-income people, like housing rehabilitation and health care.
Under President Donald Trump’s proposed budget, the CDBG program would be eliminated as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development would see a $6 billion cut in funding.
Since CDBG funding focuses on benefiting low- to moderate-income communities, Workman said all-encompassing infrastructure improvements for larger West Virginia cities likely wouldn’t qualify for its funding. Much of the funding would go toward helping communities develop a foundation that would make them eligible for other funding methods.
“We don’t want to see people starting without a plan,” she said. “Other communities that get federal funding are gigabit ready. West Virginia communities are not so lucky.”
After the meeting, Council President Rob Hinton said Frontier Communications’ lawsuit that calls for the elimination of a section of House Bill 3093 wouldn’t affect the council directly.
“We’ll let the courts do what they do, whatever the outcome may be,” Hinton said. “I don’t see it affecting us currently.”
In its lawsuit, Frontier argues that Article 4 of the bill, which allows a third party to alter existing equipment on a telecommunications pole once approved by the pole owner, would conflict with federal law enforced by the Federal Communications Commission.
Hinton said it’s “a complicated issue” because the FCC is considering making changes to their current pole attachments rules.
“The council did send a comment to the FCC that basically said, ‘Here’s the pole attachment law that was passed in West Virginia,’” he said. “If those outcomes match, great. But we’ll have to wait and see.”