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More Trouble for West Virginia Broadband Venture

December 4, 2012

One theme CNE has stressed over and over again in our discussions of government-owned networks is that public officials rarely have the expertise to effectively and profitably run a broadband network.

The best thing we can say about the growing mess regarding West Virginia’s taxpayer-funded venture into broadband (which CNE has reported on before) is that, at least, the state tried to get help from some experts.

Some very handsomely rewarded experts. According to the Charleston Gazette, West Virginia used $1.3 million of the $126.3 million it got from the 2009 stimulus bill to compensate five consultants for its state-wide government network. The consultants were paid between $150 and $250 an hour for their services. One consultant out of Colorado accounted for nearly half of the spending ($731,700). His fees included time logged traveling from Colorado to West Virginia at least 47 times. (The state says it doesn’t pay for the consultant’s travel, meal or lodging expenses.)

The Gazette says the budget proposal the state submitted for the project does not mention it planned to use outside managers for the project.

In the Gazette article, state officials basically admit they did not have the capacity or knowledge to carry out the project themselves. According to the Gazette, “State officials said last week that the Office of Technology and other state agencies needed extra help because of the massive size of the $126.3 million project.” State chief technology office Gale Given said, “This work goes far beyond our current staffing resources … These professionals are necessary to provide engineering, project management and other functions, and to coordinate the various parties that are involved in the grant.”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear West Virginia residents have benefitted from the work done by these highly-paid consultants. Two years after the project broke ground, West Virginia is still “the worst in the country in terms of a disconnected populace,” said Karl Bode of DSL Reports. As ArsTechnica points out, the state spent $22,000 on routers for small institutions like community libraries when $500 or $100 routers would have sufficed.

The state, amazingly, called the purchases “economical.”

No matter how well-compensated, insourcing five consultants doesn’t appear to be enough to overcome government’s own deficiencies.

This project is still under investigation by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Inspector General. Stay tuned for more on this issue.