A $126.3 million federal stimulus grant to provide high-speed internet to hundreds of schools and other public facilities throughout West Virginia is far behind the timeline state education officials had envisioned and is hitting implementation snags, state Board of Education officials learned March 14.
Board members said that more than two years after West Virginia received the grant, there was still confusion about how many schools actually could connect to a high-speed internet network. They also expressed growing frustration with the quality of service and lack of communication provided by Frontier Communications, a major contractor in the project.
“We were given a gift of $126 million, and it would be a tragedy if that money were not spent correctly,” said Michael Green, state board of education member, at a meeting in Charleston.
Green expressed worry that “we don’t have a process or the vendors in place” to provide West Virginia students with a high-speed internet system.
As of March 14, 257 of the 463 schools in the state scheduled to receive broadband access through the grant had been furnished with the physical infrastructure—fiber-optic cable and routers—to connect to the broadband network, said John Dunlap, manager of the West Virginia Office of Technology. But he stressed that even though hundreds of those schools were labeled as “complete” under federal grant specifications, those sites still could not connect to the internet.
“The federal grant only pays to lay down fiber and provide the routers to the different sites,” said Dunlap. “It does not pay to activate service.”
Internet service providers like Suddenlink and Frontier Communications have to step in and “activate” the fiber in order for students in classrooms to turn on their computers and connect to the internet.
There’s just one problem, said Dunlap. There is no streamlined system in place to tell carriers like Suddenlink or Frontier that they need to activate broadband networks at schools with ready-to-go fiber optics.
That hole in the pipeline has left state education officials in a quandary about how to explain to school principals why they still cannot connect to a broadband network even though their schools are labeled as “complete.”
Green, of the state board, blamed poor management at Frontier for the communication problems and failing to provide clear information to the Department of Education about the status of the stimulus project.