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Dispute over broadband grant erupts in Huntington

HUNTINGTON — A dispute has erupted over a $2.5 million POWER grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission that would deliver high-speed broadband to Huntington.

Huntington Mayor Steve Williams says Comcast and corporate telecommunications lobbyists are actively try to stop the city from receiving the grant funding for its “Thundercloud” project.

“Unfortunately, we are learning that Comcast, which only provides a fraction of the level of high-speed broadband that they claim to provide, is actively trying to torpedo this project and our grant application,” Williams said on Monday. “At a critical time when we are trying to improve high-speed broadband and the economic outlook of our community, Comcast is attempting to squash us like a bug.”

However, Mark Polen, director of government relations and advocacy with LGCR Government Solutions LLC, a subsidiary of the law firm of Lewis Glasser Casey & Rollins PLLC, in Charleston, who serves as executive director of the West Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association, which represents the state’s major cable broadband providers, including Comcast and others, said it was the ARC that reached out to providers.

“As a part of its due diligence efforts in reviewing the Thundercloud proposal, the Appalachian Regional Commission staff reached out to all providers currently operating within the footprint of the Thundercloud project. The ARC requested these providers to submit information to it concerning the level of broadband services available in the project area for both residential and commercial customers, as well as for information on what services could be delivered if a customer had a higher level need,” Polen said.

“It is my understanding that at least four providers have provided the commission with information indicating that significant levels of service from multiple providers are currently available in the project area.”

Williams said Thundercloud and city teams reached out to businesses and civic customers of business to confirm that broadband service speeds are not adequate and do not meet the speed standards established by the ARC. He said Huntington guided 12 customers using existing providers through reliable speed test trials.

“The actual speeds being delivered by Comcast at the customers tested show results that are mostly bare fractions of the speeds promised to, and paid for by, these customers,” Williams said. “For instance, Huntington City Hall’s speed test showed Comcast speeds less than 1% upload speed, and only 7% download speed, of the contracted amount that the city and the taxpayers of Huntington pay for.”

Comcast Beltway Region Vice President of Communications Kristie Fox said Comcast continues to operate one of the most extensive fiber-based networks in the country.

“We have invested to make broadband widely available for decades, delivering speeds up to 2 Gbps for residential customers and up to 10 Gbps for business customers, including those in Barboursville and Huntington, West Virginia, where gigabit speeds have been available since 2017,” she said in a prepared statement.

Fox added that Comcast has invested more than $300 million in its technology and infrastructure that includes more than 390 miles of Comcast fiber and cable plant in the Huntington system, which includes the City of Huntington, the Village of Barboursville and towns in Putnam County, including Bancroft, Buffalo, Eleanor and Poca.

She said while Comcast can’t verify the conditions under which a speed test was conducted, the company’s engineers have detected no widespread connectivity issues and, since the beginning of the pandemic, Comcast has been conducting over 700,000 daily speed tests in support of delivering the fastest speeds to our customers, according to Fox.

Thundercloud project

Williams said the Thundercloud project began seven years ago when the city partnered with the state and the nonprofit organization Thundercloud, which consists of local entities including Marshall University, Marshall Health and Mountain Health Network, to apply for the grant.

“Thundercloud was developed to provide world-class broadband connections to our area for economic development,” Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, said. “The project has the potential to be replicated in the greater Appalachian region.”

Plymale said Thundercloud was created so that West Virginians would be making decisions for West Virginia toward resolving the state’s lack of adequate internet service in unserved and underserved areas.

“I am personally frustrated that most of our broadband connectivity decisions are being made by giant corporations that are not domiciled in the Appalachian region and do not understand the injustice that we suffer with a lack of connectivity,” he said.

Williams says in 2013, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a “Gigabit City Challenge” calling on all states to deploy gigabit-speed Internet access in at least one city. West Virginia and its Broadband Enhancement Council chose Huntington as its pilot city and in 2014 a gigabit feasibility study was developed.

Huntington established a citywide broadband viability analysis, street-by-street network geospatial mapping analysis with initial design scenarios, a network-cost analysis, a demand and use analysis and a pricing plan analysis for capital debt service and operations, according to Williams.

In 2014, Huntington made the “Gigabit City” goal a cornerstone of its effort to win the America’s Best Communities Prize, which Huntington achieved as the nation’s grand prize winner in April 2017.

In 2016, Williams launched a “Gigabit City Task Force” led by top technology leaders in business, educational institutions, the health sector and other leaders in the region to make sure high-speed broadband infrastructure is deployed in Huntington.

“That Task Force determined that it would seek public-private partnerships with other entities to be able to attract and establish high-speed broadband that could foster economic development,” Williams said.

Williams said in 2019, the Huntington Gigabit City Task Force reached out to private sector companies asking for their partnership on the Gigabit City goals. He said Huntington seeks partnerships for broadband deployment, but Comcast and Segra ignored repeated requests.

“Despite repeated emails and calls to both Comcast and Segra (formerly Lumos Networks, but now owned by a European venture capital firm), Comcast and Segra both blew Huntington off and failed to respond to Huntington’s requests,” Williams said. “They didn’t so much as return our calls. Other companies that were contacted early in 2020 about our goals for the community never responded.”

Williams claims the city gave Comcast an opportunity to present a proposal for the project, but instead broadband provider Segra sent a letter on Friday asking the ARC to refuse to provide funding to support the project.

“Now, they appear to be coming out of the woodwork, pushed by corporate lobbyists, in a last-minute effort to thwart Huntington’s progress,” Williams said.

Public hearings

Williams is calling for a public hearing as soon as possible to investigate whether Comcast and other private companies are providing promised levels of broadband service they claim.

“This will also allow businesses, citizens, educational institutions and the health sector to speak out about their satisfaction with the quality of broadband investment in the region,” the mayor said.

Williams said the public hearing would take place in October, but an exact date was not announced.

“These hearings will determine whether big corporate involvement in Huntington is delivering on promises and supporting economic development and community progress, or not,” Williams said.

Williams says Huntington seeks information about the availability of this private corporate infrastructure, its affordability for Huntington businesses, whether speed tests show that promised service is being delivered and whether corporate franchise agreements with Huntington are being fulfilled.

“This information can be compared against what a nonprofit and public-oriented broadband approach could bring to the greater Huntington community,” he said. “It is important to understand whether European venture capitalists and massive international conglomerates will move West Virginia forward, because they simply have not done so yet.”

Williams claims the Thundercloud project will boost economic development and provide a better quality of service at a lower cost than any private company.

“We are optimistic that the ARC will view it the same way,” Williams said.

Wayne County students attend first day of in-person school

WAYNE — The halls of elementary, middle and high schools in Wayne County were no longer vacant on Monday.

Wayne moved into the coveted yellow on state’s color-coded COVID-19 map, which allows for face-to-face instruction as well as for athletic teams to resume play.

Though the district officially began instruction last week virtually, students were not able to return in-person due to being in the “orange” category.

Wayne County Superintendent Todd Alexander said the district is very excited to have students back in school.

“In-person instruction is crucial for academic success. We are hopeful that the strategies to lower the spread of COVID-19 will continue to result in a low number of cases in Wayne County so that we can continue to provide in-person instruction and return to a five day a week/traditional schedule as soon as possible,” he said.

Ceredo-Kenova Elementary Principal Deidre Farley said the first day of instruction at school made for a joyous Monday.

“It feels absolutely wonderful to be here and have students here as well,” she said. “We are all so excited to be back, especially the students, and everyone seems to be in a good mood. Everyone is thrilled to finally be back.”

For a school as large as C-K, having students at 50% capacity seems small to Farley, but she said it has allowed her and the faculty to really focus on the students who are present.

“We are able to talk a little more to each student and help them adjust as best we can — which seems to be going very well so far,” she said.

Students in grades 3 to 5 are required to wear masks at all times while moving about the school; six feet of social distance space is required and being observed; and hand-washing as well as sanitizing is being done several times throughout the day. Students are also having their temperatures recorded each morning by faculty.

“For our first day we received no high temperature readings or signs of symptoms from any of our students,” Farley said.

At C-K specifically, precautions have been put in place to keep students safe as well as make everything run smoothly at the large school.

Some of those include moving pre-K to different area for drop off, having two different areas for students to grab breakfast as they go to class in the morning, labeling stairwells for directionality (some used for going up, others for going down), and expanding from three to five lunches.

“The students are adjusting wonderfully to the guidelines and rules. For them, it is almost fun because it is something new,” Farley said. “The only one that they are having a slight bit of trouble with is the six feet rule, but we have stickers on the floors to help them remember and they are starting to get it.”

Wayne County Schools will host another first day of face-to-face instruction Thursday as the other half of students will attend classes.

Terry Grundy of Huntington carries a picket sign as people gather outside of Mildred Mitchell-Bateman Hospital to address worker concerns on Monday, September 14, 2020, in Huntington.

State considering more 'tweaks' to COVID school map

CHARLESTON — As West Virginia enters week two of school, Gov. Jim Justice on Monday met with his team of advisors to discuss even more changes to the map that guides what school looks like.

Justice and his team met at 5 p.m. Monday. At his afternoon press briefing, Justice said he wanted to discuss possible changes to the color system, how to help counties with colleges that affect the ratio and to further discuss sports.

Justice said he believes the parameters of the orange phase (10 to 24.9 cases per 100,000) of the system are too broad and unfair. Instead, he would like to add a new color metric — maybe gold — that would go in between yellow and orange.

“Maybe the difference is gold is smaller, maybe only 10-13,” Justice said. “What I am so saddened with, you have counties that have not even had the opportunity to start back to school. We need to try with all in us to do something about that. We could allow you to go to school in gold and play sports in gold. You could play any other county in gold or play within the county.”

Take Putnam County, for example. On Thursday, which is the cutoff for the Department of Education map, Putnam County had only 11.89 cases per 100,000, according to the Department of Health and Human Resources map. That puts them on the cusp of being yellow, but still pretty far from going red, and Justice said he doesn’t think it’s fair.

Justice said he also wanted to revisit testing student athletes. Before the season started, Justice offered the few counties in orange at the time the chance to test their football teams. If they were all negative, they could play, despite being in the orange. All three counties declined the offer, and Justice said he didn’t think it was feasible to mandate the testing of all high school football players.

The governor also said he wants to look into ways they could better isolate college campuses so college students don’t count toward the average.

Justice could not give a clear answer as to when changes, if any, would be announced.

The possible “tweaks” to the school system come after parents and guardians navigated the second weekend monitoring the color-coded system.

In Cabell County, families who monitor the DHHR map woke up Saturday morning to the county changing from yellow to orange. This caused some alarm, as families tried to figure out if this meant Cabell County Schools had to move to virtual learning.

Dr. Clay Marsh, state coronavirus czar, said discrepancies happen between the two maps because the Department of Education cuts off at Thursday evening. This provides the COVID-19 Data Review Panel time to verify the numbers, check whether cases are from the congregate setting or community, ensure their are no duplicates and allocate cases to appropriate counties.

The review process changed Calhoun County from orange to yellow this past weekend.

The school map is updated at 5 p.m. every Saturday.

There were 121 new positive cases reported Monday, and nine new COVID-19 related deaths: a 91-year-old woman from Cabell County, an 84-year-old woman from Kanawha County, a 78-year-old man from Grant County, a 66-year-old man from Harrison County, an 86-year-old man from Harrison County, a 76-year-old man from Harrison County, a 75-year-old woman from Kanawha County, a 71-year-old woman from Kanawha County, and an 83-year-old woman from Kanawha County. The deaths bring the total fatalities to 275.

In Ohio, the Lawrence County Health Department reported eight new positive cases, patients being between the ages of 29-78. One new hospitalization was reported.

There are 81 active cases in the county out of a total 566.

Statewide, 1,079 new positive cases were reported, and only four new deaths.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine on Monday signed into law House Bill 606, which ensures civil immunity to individuals, schools, health care providers, businesses, and other entities from lawsuits arising from exposure, transmission, or contraction of COVID-19.

In Kentucky, the Ashland-Boyd County Health Department reported 10 new positive cases: a 24-year-old woman, a 34-year-old woman, a 36-year-old man, a 36-year-old man, a 40-year-old man, a 41-year-old man, a 56-year-old man, a 63-year-old woman, a 64-year-old man and a 66-year-old woman.

The health department also reported one of Saturday’s 10 positives was actually found to be a resident of Greenup County, so it has been removed from the total count.

There are 98 active cases in the county out of a total 358. Statewide, 342 new positive cases were reported, and five new deaths.

Gov. Andy Beshear released the latest plan for Kentucky schools, which gives more control to local school districts to decide the mode of schooling.

Like West Virginia, a color-coded map showing incidence rates will provide districts with corresponding guidance. It will be updated every Thursday evening.

Schools in green and yellow areas essentially follow previous guidance from the state. Schools in an orange zone should take enhanced measures, including more aggressive crowd limits, and should consider a variety of factors to determine what mode of instruction they should use.

If a county reaches red, then both in-person instruction should be suspended the following week and only remote learning should occur. Schools may still use small groups per department of ed guidance for special circumstances.