Republicans question $126 million stimulus grant for W.Va. broadband

Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce communications subcommittee want answers on how West Virginia was allowed to spend millions of dollars on high-end network equipment for libraries the GOP says had little need for it.

The matter was raised during an oversight hearing for the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program created by the 2009 stimulus bill.

The stimulus included $4.7 billion in funding to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) for grants to be distributed to communities that were unserved or underserved by broadband Internet service.

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The grants were to be used to build out physical infrastructure and for network equipment at so-called “anchor institutions” like schools, libraries, hospitals and university networks.

Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) questioned NTIA administrator Lawrence Strickling on the issue.

Walden pointed to an article from The Charleston Gazette about the state's use of its BTOP grant. He called it “pretty disturbing” that the state used $24 million of the $126 million grant to buy high-end Cisco routers, designed for networks with upwards of 500 computers, at libraries with only two or three computers installed.

“What is NTIA doing about it?” he asked.

“Don't believe everything you read in the newspaper,” Strickland responded.

Each router cost $12,000, he said, and some are going to institutions with heavy needs such as hospitals and universities. Determining capacity for every institution needing a router would cost more than purchasing “scalable, expandable gear,” he said.

Some institutions may not ever need full capacity, but “many of those anchor institutions may benefit” from the routers, Strickland said.

“The state made an economical decision that is well-justified by the facts,” he said.

Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) later told him: “I would like to see the bids.”

Shimkus said he “wants to analyze ... whether the bid was so cavalier that they asked for routers for 500 when the need was three.”

“As much as you try, you just can't defend what is going on in West Virginia,” he said.

— This story was updated at 5:03 p.m. to clarify how much money was spent on the routers.