A discussion was held last week at the Pocahontas County Broadband Council meeting about the recent announcement out of Senator Joe Manchin’s office that Frontier Communications has been awarded their bid for exclusive broadband development rights on a large portion of the county by the FCC Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). Frontier had bid several years ago at an RDOF auction for those county areas.
Because of Frontier’s poor track record in providing both landline and Internet service here, it was hoped that the FCC would not approve Frontier’s area bids under RDOF, or at least not approve them until after the county’s US Department of Agriculture Reconnect 3 Grant application was approved, which would have taken precedence over the RDOF award. It is believed broadband service could be built much quicker and more reliably by another Internet Service Provider (ISP) using Reconnect grant funds. The fear is that Frontier may take many years, maybe even up to 10 years, to even begin the installation of their RDOF broadband service.
Mike Holstine and Region 4 Project Assistant Amanda Smarr advised the council that “hope is not lost.” They said the FCC announcement may have been a bit premature, since the FCC’s long form approval process is not yet complete, and Frontier’s letters of credit and financial obligations are still being reviewed by the FCC. Holstine also said he has heard that there may be some high-level discussions about USDA broadband funding taking precedence over RDOF awarded areas.
As far as ownership of broadband infrastructure is concerned, Melissa O’Brien of the Roane County Broadband Council, said they have worked out an agreement with their ISP, but have paused this until they see how the recent passage of House Bill 4001 will affect such an agreement. That bill, which has passed both houses of the State Legislature and is awaiting the Governor’s signature, would guarantee “open access” to all ISPs for any 100% federally funded broadband project. It is not believed the grants the county is looking at would be considered “100% federally funded” since they all require some sort of local match.
Regarding the already approved Appalachian Regional Commission’s $2.5 million Power Grant, which will provide high speed broadband east of Marlinton to Huntersville and up Route 28 to Dunmore, Smarr said the field work for the environmental report should be completed this week, then it will be submitted to the state to have the construction funds released.
It was also announced that the county’s application for the NTIA Grant has not been approved at this time, but it’s possible that it is pending. Logan and Mingo counties have received approvals of their NTIA grant.
Smarr and Holstine said the $10.8 million Reconnect 3 grant application has been submitted and is in a 45-day public comment period. This grant has a $2.5 million local match, which the ISP can put up based upon other work they are doing in the county.
O’Brien, speaking about Roane County, said that she has developed a good relationship with the new managers of Frontier Communications who have the authority to make positive changes to the way Frontier operates. She said she has traveled with them to other counties and held meetings where they say they want to change Frontier’s bad reputation. She wants to have them attend a Pocahontas Broadband Council meeting along with some of their engineers to answer questions, however they would want the meeting to be in Executive Session – closed to the public and media – because they will talk about proprietary information.
It was pointed out by this reporter that such a closed session would appear to violate the West Virginia Open Meetings Act. Sarah Riley agreed that all parties can work together to find a legal and permissible format for the meeting which will fully inform the public but avoid having Frontier publicly disclose proprietary information. No date has been set as yet for that meeting.