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The West Virginia House of Delegates voted Wednesday to advance legislation to address the state’s broadband woes.
House Bill 2002 includes numerous provisions for broadband deployment, consumer protections and accountability of companies that receive public funding.
It’s not the West Virginia Legislature’s first broadband bill. In the last five years, state lawmakers have created a Broadband Enhancement Council, a ‘dig once’ policy for installing broadband infrastructure and a middle-mile expansion program.
But the bill’s lead sponsor, Del. Daniel Linville, said the legislation comes at an important time as the coronavirus pandemic has made the country more dependent on the internet for day-to-day tasks like school, work, medical appointments and even grocery shopping.
“It’s the single most important thing in my opinion that we could do this year, given the COVID-19 pandemic, but it was important long before that,” Linville said in a speech on the House floor, just before they passed his bill. “This is 21st Century infrastructure. This is something that we’ve got to do and we’ve got to do it now.”
Consumer Protections And Credits
New this year, House Bill 2002 extends consumer protections that cable customers receive to broadband users. That includes a credit for interrupted service and 30 days’ notice before any billing changes.
If this legislation becomes law, it would also loop in the state attorney general’s consumer protection division, to handle any complaints against broadband providers.
“Consumers are upset about their billing, raising prices, their poor services, their inability to get customer service,” said Del. Mick Bates, a Democrat from Raleigh County who has spoken in favor of the bill. “We’re letting them know that they can complain to the consumer service division of the attorney general’s office if their issue was not dealt with.”
The bill also seeks to elevate consumer experiences as broadband officials map out which areas still need broadband support.
Through speed tests — hundreds of thousands of which the Broadband Enhancement Council has already spent the last year collecting and analyzing — consumers can voluntarily test their internet speeds from home.
“We’re going to hopefully be able to build to these areas where we know they don’t have service,” Linville said.
A Need For More Regional Approaches
Lawmakers say they hope the provisions for deployment help the state in its mission to build to the areas with most need.
The bill updates state code for the Division of Highways, which has been altered several times in the last few years, to allow telecommunications carriers to share division-run right-of-way areas with other utility companies.
Linville said he hopes this cuts down on some of the time and dollars that telecommunications carriers spend preparing to build in West Virginia — but these provisions aren’t just to benefit out-of-state, private corporations.
The bill also allows smaller municipalities and counties to install fiber for broadband as they deem fit.
“That certainly makes co-ops and municipal, or publicly-owned facilities, more plausible,” said Charlie Dennie, director of the Office of Broadband, which has been tasked with implementing some of House Bill 2002’s measures.
Such approaches could include a program in Hardy County, where a customer-owned cooperative working with county officials has deployed broadband to more than 3,600 homes.
Dennie said West Virginia requires a variety of regional approaches for broadband deployment, due to its unique history in telecommunications infrastructure and geographic diversity.
“There’s no one-size-fits all, or ‘one solution is right,’ for every community,” Dennie said. “I think people have to make those decisions for themselves.”
‘We Will Hold People Accountable’ For Use Of Public Funds
Although broadband deployment is expensive, there’s no funding attached to House Bill 2002.
Linville told other delegates Wednesday, before voting on the bill, that the governor’s office and the Legislature have committed to spending $50 million yearly, for the next three years, on broadband.
The state and its providers also have received several federal grants, most recently including the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.
But even though it doesn’t call for any spending, House Bill 2002 outlines procedures for holding companies that receive public dollars accountable.
If the bill becomes law, relevant committees in the West Virginia Legislature will have the authority to request information and require attendance from members of these companies.
“The message that we’re sending is that we will call people on the carpet, we will hold people accountable,” Linville said.
As House Technology and Infrastructure chair, Linville most recently called for information and testimony from telecommunications company Frontier Communications for their bankruptcy agreements with the state Public Service Commission.
Frontier’s role in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund — federal officials agreed to give the company more than $247 million over 10 years from broadband expansion — has been met with opposition by several state lawmakers and U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito.
“And we will hold these companies accountable, because we have a mandate from the public that we’ve got to get this done,” Linville said.
The bill passed with almost unanimous support from the House of Delegates Wednesday. It now moves onto the Senate for consideration.
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.