Should possum hollows always get top priority?
HOUSE Bill 2979 ("relating to broadband deployment projects") was a candidate for the most boring legislation until a last-minute amendment sparked a debate that is overdue.
The bill concerned the distribution by the Broadband Deployment Council of $2 million for projects that expand Internet access.
Frontier Communications, the largest broadband provider in the state, lobbied for instructing the council to give priority to people who have no Internet access. Frontier wants to serve the 85,000 households in the state that have only satellite connections.
Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, introduced such an amendment and Sen. Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, who works for Frontier, was among its supporters.
They argued that giving everyone access to the Internet should take priority over upgrading access for those who already have it.
But is that a wise use of limited funds?
There are 740,000 households in the state. Should 655,000 or so households go without improvements in their Internet speed so a company can extend service to people who live far off the beaten track?
"If we have 10 folks up in Possum Hollow that have no access to broadband access, would they receive priority over the thousand people who only have two megabytes of broadband access?" asked Sen. Clark Barnes, R-Randolph.
In fairness, Frontier has spent tens of millions of dollars since 2010 to extend broadband service to 158,000 households. It contends the original bill would allow the broadband council to subsidize competitors where Frontier already provides service.
In part, it's a fight over which companies get funds.
But although Barnes used the name "Possum Hollow" rhetorically, his question applies to all infrastructure.
Should city water lines be extended for miles to help one person or should money be used to upgrade systems that serve more people who live closer together?
There is a reason why three interstate highways intersect in Charleston and no interstate touches Calhoun County.
Kanawha County has 192,179 people. Calhoun has 7,607 souls.
The money should go where the people are. The highway model may be a better way to distribute money for water, sewers and Internet access.