CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A bill aimed to expand the availability of high-speed Internet access in West Virginia has Citynet and Frontier again at odds, with unions and rural lawmakers also taking sides in the skirmish.
The bill, backed by Citynet, would give the state Water Development Authority the power to give grants or loans to telecommunication companies to build "middle mile" broadband projects, which are essentially trunk lines for the high-speed fiber optic cables that carry digital information.
Frontier supporters, including unions, are lining up to challenge the bill. They say the bill will allow Citynet to grab public money to compete with Frontier, which has cornered some segments of the market, in part because of a previous government grant.
The bill, which was quietly introduced two weeks ago, emerged as a point of contention beginning sometime Monday evening, spilling into a series of huddles with lawmakers and lobbyists on Tuesday.
House Majority Leader Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, told both sides to try to sort things out by today. Under legislative rules, the bill would need to pass the House today to be considered by the Senate before the end of the 60-day regular session, which ends March 10.
Citynet officials have long contended Frontier received tens of millions of dollars from a federal grant for a broadband project that will only benefit Frontier Communications because, once connected, state agencies and anyone else who wants to connect to Frontier's network will have to pay Frontier's going rates.
Frontier has repeatedly said it will abide by all federal requirements and the state's contract to fulfill the goals established by the federal government.
Citynet lobbyist Tom Susman said it would be unfortunate if the debate over the bill got framed as an extension of the Citynet, Frontier fight that began a few years ago. He said the state's economic future depends on broadband being widely and cheaply available in the state.
"People don't want to admit it, but in some ways this could be our new workers' compensation - if we don't get the prices down, it could be tough," Susman said, referring to an old workers comp system that once drove off or kept out businesses.
Delegate Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, is a Frontier employee. He tried to get the bill taken off the House agenda and said it would have a chilling effect on private investment.
"A private company has invested $300 million in private capital to provide middle mile and now you've got this proposed bill that allows private companies to receive public taxpayer monies to build another parallel network," Carmichael said.
Carmichael said the bill would hurt Frontier's union workforce.
"It will cost union jobs because the taxpayers will be funding non-union companies with public money," he said.
Frontier has a collective bargaining agreement with workers. Citynet does not.