Members of the West Virginia Senate approved a bill to create a government-owned middle mile network, expanding access to broadband Internet in the state.
The measure passed 29-5 during Thursday's Senate floor session.
The bill, sponsored by the chamber's youngest member, Republican Sen. Chris Walters, allows private Internet providers to present a business plan to connect to the state-owned middle mile network to the West Virginia Water Development Authority. Once a business plan is deemed viable, the authority would be able to bond the construction project.
Walters described that middle mile as a highway system from which providers could build off-ramps into rural communities, but he said the state would not build those miles until providers assure them they want to connect to the network through the business plan.
The bill also directs several state agencies, including the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Resources, to apply for federal grants.
Some members of the Republican majority spoke against the bill, saying they did not believe the state should get into a business that can be handled by the private sector.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael shared that sentiment. Carmichael is employed by Frontier, one of the largest Internet providers in West Virginia, and has spoken loudly against the bill.
After the vote, Walters said he was hopeful members of the House of Delegates would take a favorable look at the bill. He said he will be meeting with committee chairs and offering himself to testify at any House committee meetings.