After decades of poor broadband connectivity and a history of squandered opportunities, West Virginia is set to get a flood of federal money to fix the problem.
The cash offers hope that the tide is turning and access to a resource considered critical for economic development — as well as health and equity — will dramatically improve. But West Virginia has a long history of broken promises when it comes to broadband internet, despite the assurances of state officials and companies.
Now, hundreds of millions of broadband dollars — with more to come — are set to be overseen by a single state cabinet. In response, lawmakers are pushing a bill that would create two big accountability tools: a legislative commission to oversee the broadband-money-controlling Department of Economic Development, and the ability for the state to hold companies accountable when they don’t follow through on their word.
Gov. Jim Justice highlighted West Virginia’s dramatically expanded pockets when announced a billion-dollar broadband plan in October.
“This is surely a landmark day for West Virginia,” Justice said. “We’ve been talking for years about how to fix the rural broadband problem. Now we’re finally going to do it.”
A lot of the money for the project comes from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund — funds distributed by the Federal Communications Commission — and a mix of state and other federal money. But two-thirds of the RDOF money is slated to go to Frontier Communications, which exited bankruptcy last year and has a long history of breaking promises to West Virginia.
When it was announced in late 2020, the news that Frontier was set to get another chance didn’t thrill some state officials.
“The job now lies on the FCC to hold these providers accountable,” said Delegate Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, at the time.
Now, under a bill introduced by Linville this legislative session, West Virginia wouldn’t have to rely on the FCC to hold them accountable.
House Bill 4001 is currently in the House Technology and Infrastructure Committee, which Linville chairs. It would let the state deny companies the certification that makes them eligible for the FCC funding, if the companies don’t do what they said they would.
And, if a company claims they’ve fulfilled their contractual obligations and it turns out to not be true, the state can not only yank away the certification, but also impose a fine and make that company ineligible for state funds and benefits.
“It takes the future of West Virginia’s own internet access and availability and the projects … back into the hands of the state of West Virginia instead of Washington, D.C., in large part,” Linville said. “With this historic investment, we want to make sure that we only partner with those providers who are willing to keep their word.”
Charlie Dennie, former director of the state’s Office of Broadband and a current broadband consultant, said this provision in the bill could be a “huge deal.”
“It seems to me that all we’re doing here is compelling people who are taking public money to provide the service that they represent they’re going to provide,” he said. “And if they’re not going to do that, they’re not going to get paid for it anymore.”
“No comment,” a spokesperson for Frontier Communications said in response to emailed questions. But for another, smaller broadband provider, the state scrutiny is welcomed.
Hardy Telecommunications, a Hardy County-based local cooperative that provides high-speed broadband, did not receive any RDOF funds. Derek Barr, its assistant general manager, said that was disappointing, especially since a lot of the money instead went to big companies with shoddy track records. He says holding these larger companies accountable could help level the playing field for smaller companies like his without the same histories.
“Companies who don’t intend to follow through or don’t fully realize what it’s going to take to fulfill the obligations won’t be so cavalier about gobbling up all the funds that are available. They’ll focus on what they can do, and what they want to do,” Barr said. “As long as [the state uses its authority to] go after the bad apples and use the power for the bad apples that aren’t doing it, then it’s a good thing.”
Linville’s bill also provides more consumer protections, creates funds to be used to assist in broadband expansion, and increases mapping provisions that Linville says seek to speed up the deployment and building of broadband networks.
Economic Development Secretary Mitch Carmichael, whose office would be subject to increased oversight under the bill’s provisions, said he was wary of the measure.
“We had just put in place new provisions for broadband expansion that have been very successful,” he said. “So we’re hesitant to try to go down a path that potentially could damage the successful programs we currently have.”
Before he took his current role, Carmichael was the Senate president from 2017 to 2021. He didn’t respond to a follow-up email asking for details about which new provisions and successful programs he was referring to.
Beyond oversight for the outside companies that promise to bring broadband access to West Virginians, Linville’s bill also would instill more accountability for Carmichael’s department.
Legislative oversight commissions already exist for state agencies that get a lot of federal money, including the Health and Human Resources, Education and Transportation departments.
Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars that have recently poured into its coffers for broadband and economic development, the Department of Economic Development doesn’t have this type of oversight.
“These are just to just make sure that there is accountability for everyone involved, which I think is eminently desirable by our constituents and by all of us,” Linville said. “We just want to make sure that we get it right.”
It’s not just about broadband funding. Over the summer, lawmakers set aside $30 million in surplus money to be used by the department for projects meant to convince companies to come to West Virginia.
At the time, Carmichael said the process would be “completely transparent” and officials wouldn’t write any checks until the guardrails around the fund were complete. Last week, he said the guardrails are provided on an individual basis with the companies involved. He did not respond to a follow-up email later in the week asking exactly how much was spent and exactly where it went.
The department also is receiving $315 million to make its deal with Nucor, as well $15 million for a Morgantown-area medical supply and equipment company.
If Linville’s bill becomes law, it would provide legislative oversight of not just money spent, but also the department’s practices, policies and procedures.
“Oversight is extremely important — it leads to better policy, it leads to better programs,” said Kasia Tarczynska, senior research analyst at Good Jobs First. “Any public money should be scrutinized, evaluated.”
That’s especially important when it comes to broadband and economic development dollars, she said.
Carmichael said his team would be happy to comply with any commission set up to oversee his agency. But he thinks the Legislature already has oversight, pointing to other committees that already exist, though he didn’t specify which ones.
“So if they want to create another committee, it seems like oversight of the oversight of the oversight, but we’re happy to comply,” Carmichael said.
But an oversight commission has greater power than other committees in place. It’s required to meet regularly, for one. And its sole purpose is scrutinizing a particular department.
“It is perhaps the most direct and most authoritative way that the Legislature can speak and say, ‘Look, this is a priority that we want to make sure that we oversee,’’’ Linville said.
Dennie said establishing an oversight committee like this shouldn’t look like a “gotcha” to the department; it’s just a normal way the government works.
“There are all kinds of things in state government that have oversight, [making] sure that we’re doing what we say we’re going to be doing with the money,” he said. “When people don’t have any accountability, I think they may be a little more lax.”
In the meantime, West Virginia officials are already making decisions about how to spend millions of dollars, both about which companies will land subsidies and also which providers will get grants for broadband projects through Justice’s billion-dollar plan.