Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., on Friday said claims made by Gov. Jim Justice during a Thursday news briefing were misleading, and the possibility of $766 million flowing into West Virginia for broadband expansion is unlikely to happen.
Justice signed an executive order Thursday removing the $50 million regulatory cap on the state’s broadband infrastructure loan insurance program. He said eliminating the cap — coupled with securing a massive amount of federal funding that would soon be available through a Federal Communications Commission auction — would be “monumental beyond belief and will absolutely revolutionize and change this state.”
Manchin said by phone he doesn’t disagree with Justice’s decision to remove the cap, but he said the idea that this move will change the future of the state is not true.
“Don’t play with people like this. We need some good, honest dialogue here and we ought to work together,” Manchin said. “To throw stuff out like that is just so wrong.”
The core issue lies with the maps the FCC uses to show which parts of West Virginia have sufficient broadband connection, Manchin said.
According to the FCC map Justice presented Thursday, the vast majority of households in Boone, Logan, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming counties have sufficient internet speed and do not qualify for the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.
Manchin said the FCC knows its maps aren’t accurate, and West Virginians sent more than 1,500 speed tests to the FCC in August disproving it. He said he’s strongly urged the agency to fix the maps before the $20.4 billion rural digital fund is distributed in October.
Statewide, 75% of residents who sent Manchin speed tests would not qualify for the fund, his office said.
“If you can’t get the maps corrected, you’re not going to get any attention to the areas that are really underserved ... we’re high cost, we’re underserved and the maps aren’t recognizing that,” he said.
The rural digital fund is allocated over a 10-year period, and Manchin said he fears the West Virginia counties inaccurately mapped will be locked out of sufficient broadband infrastructure funding for at least a decade.
The billions in rural digital funding will be distributed via a reverse auction — where companies bid for the lowest amount on eligible census tracts across the country and are given 10 years to connect every household in that tract.
Manchin’s office said West Virginia historically does poorly in reverse auctions because of the heightened costs of laying broadband fiber in a state with rugged terrain. For the average price of building one network tower in West Virginia, a company could construct the same tower in Kansas for a fourth of the cost, his office said.
Another problem is that as of Tuesday, zero internet service providers in West Virginia had submitted eligible applications to bid on the census tracts, according to FCC documents.
Manchin’s office said traditionally in order for any kind of significant infrastructure development to occur, a provider must already have a sizable footprint in the state before construction begins — this would lessen the chance of an out-of-state provider bidding on West Virginia’s census tracts.
Providers have until Sept. 23 to submit an eligible application.
Manchin said overall he took issue with Justice’s characterization that $766 million was already on its way to West Virginia. Securing that amount would only be possible if every census tract in West Virginia is bid on at the highest price possible — which is the opposite goal of a reverse auction.
Justice dismissed Manchin’s concerns during a Friday COVID-19 briefing, labeling them as political.
“It’s high time to realize we’ve got a senator who really is putting his political desires above our state,” Justice said.
Manchin said at the end of the day, he doesn’t want to see West Virginians duped into believing the state is set for a monumental broadband project.
“Another false promise by Jim Justice is really what it is, using it as a political ploy two months before the election,” Manchin said. “It makes a one-day splash. What happens in October when the bids go out and we don’t receive any? What’s he saying then?”