The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Local News

December 10, 2013

Education panel hears about rural, urban technology

CHARLESTON — The governor’s chief technology officer’s report to the Joint Committee on Technology Tuesday during the Legislature’s interim sessions was full of success stories: A kindergarten class in McDowell County using a Smart Table (an interactive table-size computer screen). A middle school class dissecting a frog online. All Raleigh County students with iPads. Green Bank Elementary-Middle School upgrading to 10 Mbps of bandwidth.

Gail Given said online technology could even take a look at how and what students were learning and allow their teachers to develop individual lesson plans for them. Given said the state is showing “tremendous progress.”

Committee members still had plenty of questions about cost, access and location of fiber-optic lines.

Given fielded those questions, telling the joint committee members that Frontier’s pricing had been reviewed and declared “attractive,” and that schools could now purchase 3 Mbps or 5 Mbps of bandwidth for the price of 1 Mbps.

Given indicated that several local providers are interested in connecting to Frontier’s lines, including Citynet.

It was during the discussion about the cost of building the BTOP, the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, that Given had to defend Frontier the most.

She said building fiber-optic lines to all schools, libraries, courthouses and 911 centers cost an average of $39,000 a mile, although the highest construction cost was $129,000 per mile when Frontier had to bore under an Interstate highway to provide fiber-optic lines to one school.

One senator said the original grant called for 900 miles of fiber-optic lines for $42.5 million, but the state had only gotten 675 miles of high-speed Internet upgrades for that price.

Given responded that Frontier had spent only $39 million of the grant so far.

Delegate Nancy Guthrie, D-Kanawha, said she wanted to see the maps outlining where the fiber-optic lines have been built so far.

“We are trying to put our hands on information we are going to need going forward,” Guthrie said.

Given said the maps were available online, but Delegate Randy Swartzmiller, D-Hancock, said the maps seemed to be available to everyone but legislators.

After several more questions, Given provided her copy of the maps to Swartzmiller, who said it looked like fiber-optic lines had been placed in locations that already had high-speed Internet access instead of providing that utility to rural areas where access is rare.

Given answered that lines were extended from some places that already had fiber-optic lines, or in places that had copper-based lines or wireless access.

James Martin II, Citynet president and CEO, countered some of Given’s remarks, and reminded the committee that broadband is not ruled by the Public Service Commission, so, he said, Frontier can charge what it pleases for its services.

The BTOP built the middle mile networks, Martin said, and companies like Citynet build the “last mile” into homes.

“We still have to buy from Frontier,” he said.

High costs make it a challenge for other providers, he said. “It’s not useful for any other providers but Frontier,” he said. “That’s why we have such a small amount of fiber.”

Martin said populated areas have choices for providers because customers can purchase Internet from their cable providers, but in most rural markets Frontier is the only Internet provider.

“Until we get competition (in rural areas), we’re going to be stuck with that,” Martin said.

— E-mail: ppritt@register-herald.com

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