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Broadband map

This map shows which areas have sufficient broadband service as defined by the FCC in red, which areas are eligible for the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund in blue, and which areas are not eligible but lack sufficient broadband connection in white. Justice plans to use $50 million from CARES Act funding in the white areas.

Citing glaring deficiencies in reliable internet connectivity in West Virginia, Gov. Jim Justice announced Thursday he is signing an executive order removing a barrier to a high-dollar and “game changer” investment in broadband.

The Federal Communications Commission established the $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund on Jan. 30, with those funds becoming available during an auction beginning Oct. 29. The program incentivizes private companies to lay broadband fiber in the country’s unserved rural census tracts.

West Virginia is eligible to receive up to $766 million in broadband infrastructure through the program, which identified 121,000 households in the Mountain State that don’t have internet service and are eligible to be connected, Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said at a news briefing Thursday.

The executive order removes the $50 million regulatory cap on the broadband infrastructure loan insurance program, which gives the state more flexibility to offer performance bonds to companies that bid on census tracts in the state, Justice said.

“The caps must be removed because they are preventing the state from responding to the emergency that we have on hand ... that, if we had broadband now, we would be able to be serving our citizens in a lot better way,” he said.

But “before a dollar is spent” on the project, Justice said he will have legislation proposed during the next session to establish future caps. If West Virginia can secure bids, construction is expected to begin in February, Justice said.

The governor said it is a bipartisan effort to get the state organized and fully behind the program.

“Everybody has come together with the ideas. This is anything but a Jim Justice idea in its entirety,” he said. “I just see the beauty in this gigantic deal for West Virginia.”

Delegate Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, a member of the state Broadband Enhancement Council, said that, unlike past programs, the key component of the rural digital fund is there are penalties for companies that don’t follow through on their promises.

“If a provider wins the bid on that census block, they are bound to provide service to every single home inside of that census block,” Linville said, “So, if they do not do that, there is a significant and substantial [financial] penalty.”

On top of the potential $766 million the state could receive, Linville said, there is still room for private investment, if companies are willing.

State Auditor JB McCuskey said the program creates a fiscally responsible way for West Virginia to make such a significant investment in one utility.

“What this does is it uses the power of the government not to spend its money, but to make sure that private money is investing where it needs to be invested so that our state can move forward,” he said, “and that we’re leveraging the value of private capital to make incredible infrastructure investments in West Virginia.”

The $50 million in federal CARES Act funding Justice allocated for broadband will be put toward the areas of West Virginia that aren’t eligible under the FCC program, but still remain unserved or lack reliable connectivity.

State officials and legislators at the briefing said the COVID-19 pandemic has spotlighted West Virginia’s digital divide and that, for things like distance learning, telehealth, working from home and e-commerce to be available for all citizens in the future, a project of this scale is needed now.

Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, said that, as a former educator, he believes reliable internet connectivity will help children learn as the pandemic continues.

“We’ve got to provide [our students] with that safe alternative opportunity ... or we’re going to lose a generation,” he said, “and we cannot afford to do that.”

Reach Joe Severino at joe.severino@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4814 or follow @jj_severino on Twitter.