CHARLESTON — The West Virginia House Judiciary Committee approved a bill Thursday with the goal of expanding accessibility to broadband internet in the Mountain State.
If it becomes law, House Bill 2002 will expand on existing broadband laws passed during the past three years meant to make it easier and less expensive for broadband service providers to install broadband fiber and for local municipal governments to enter into co-ops to expand broadband in their towns.
The House of Delegates moved the bill one day after Gov. Jim Justice mentioned the need for broadband expansion during his State of the State address without providing much in the way of details for how he wanted the Legislature to make that expansion happen.
Democratic minority leaders expressed frustration with the lack of a plan from the governor after his speech Wednesday evening.
Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate have expressed support for any bill that is expected to expand broadband access and reliable service to West Virginia. The majority of the state’s residents are underserved in terms of broadband services, House Judiciary General Counsel Brian Casto said Thursday.
The goal of the bill is to provide cost savings for broadband service providers. It would do this by expediting the permit process and having them share in the cost of a project with utility companies and other entities that do work that requires digging in right of way areas maintained by the West Virginia Division of Highways, said Technology and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, who is the lead sponsor of the bill.
“The intent there is to generally try to further promote, in as expeditiously manner as possible and as much of a cost-saving manner as possible, additional broadband expansion along any project that’s going on,” Linville said.
Among the significant provisions of the bill are the means for service providers to install fiber lines anytime a utility company or the DOH digs in right of way areas for maintenance, installation or any other projects.
Current law allows the broadband companies to install the lines only when the ground is open for DOH or electric utility repairs.
When a utility company obtains all the necessary permits to begin work, the West Virginia Office of Broadband is meant to act as a hub and track those permits. So, when a broadband service provider wants to install fiber lines, they can fast-track some, if not all, of the permitting processes with other state agencies, since it’s already been completed for the property affected by the work.
The bill is meant to set up an expedited process for broadband companies to obtain any other permits they need to begin work. And the application process is set up on a system that serves as a “shot clock” for the application process, Linville said. Each time a step in the application process is completed, the clock resets, with fewer days for the relevant entity to respond.
Once a broadband company has the appropriate permits and applies to begin work on a project, the Office of Broadband has 60 days to approve the application. If Broadband officials fail to respond within 60 days, the project is automatically approved.
Once a broadband fiber installation is approved, the broadband service provider will share in the cost of the original project with the utility company or other entity that initially began the project that led to opening the ground.
“The intent is to say that (a utility company) has been through this process and, if a provider would like to install broadband and share in that trench you’ve made, they could share the cost with you,” said Linville, who works for his family’s information technology contracting company. “It lessens the cost for each person or company, but they also take advantage of a truly shovel-ready project. It’s been through all the regulatory hurdles that are part of a project.”
Another provision of the law builds the Broadband Office into state law. The office already exists through the work of the West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council.
Another provision of the bill would establish that, if a broadband customer experiences a service outage that lasts for more than 24 hours, the service provider would have to provide a rate credit to the customer for that time.
Existing state law doesn’t have specified consumer protections for broadband.
“If a company fails to do that, a complaint can be taken to the Consumer Protection Division in the Attorney General’s Office for that company to be held accountable,” Linville said.