A missed connection

West Virginia lawmakers and officials have for a long time offered up the promise of economic development for West Virginia if it could only make the necessary investments in broadband technology that businesses, institutions and schools needed.

Well, the state got its wish, thanks to $24 million from the Obama Administration’s 2009 stimulus Broadband Technology Opportunities Program. And it sure ain’t pretty.

Cast a rock at someone to blame for West Virginia’s oversized purchase of enough wireless routers to link up a small nation — 1,164 of them at $20,000 a pop — and you’ll likely hit someone to blame:

  • Cisco Systems for selling West Virginia millions in high-end broadband Internet routers the company knew gargantuanly dwarfed the network the state was building;
  • State officials who shut other companies like Juniper and Alcatel-Lucent out of a bidding process that allowed Cisco to laugh all the way to the bank with its winnings, and who seemed to exercise not a whit of oversight in the bid submitted by the tech giant, even after an official with the state’s Office of Technology warned that the equipment it was purchasing was “grossly oversized.”

Maybe state officials went all goo-goo at doing business with a company headed by onetime West Virginian John Chambers, who tech insiders say has helped transform Cisco, but not for the better.

 

Just how bad was this deal? According to a legislative audit released last week, the money the state spent on wireless routers could have been spent laying more than 100 miles of fiber optic cable. Routers built to link up between 700 to 1,700 computers are sitting in libraries open only part of the week that possess not even a handful of computers. Many of these routers more than two years after being delivered are still sitting around in storage, not even having been taken out of their factory packaging because at the time they were bought there was nothing to hook them up to. Some estimates place the amount the state overspent on the deal at $14 million — more than half the size of the contract itself. Most damning: not a single one of these routers should have been purchased. In every instance, a much smaller, much less expensive router should have been installed.

 

So where are they? Well, for starters there are 24 in Mineral County (pop. 28,192). Hampshire County has 18. Nine in Romney. Three in Capon Bridge. Three more in Augusta (pop. 4,728). Jefferson County got seven of these routers — two each in Kearneysville and Harpers Ferry. One in Charles Town. One in Shepherdstown. One in Summit Point.

 

To make matters even worse, no one can seem to figure out just how all this transpired. Not the Office of Technology. Not the state Board of Education. Not Cisco.

 

While it’s heartening for Cisco to offer to extend its warranties on these rapidly obsolescing routers, the company can’t do enough backpedaling to explain how it sold the deal in the first place, unless it saw too much opportunity to pass up in separating West Virginia from all that Obama cash.

 

The next time you wonder why West Virginia can’t seem to get out of its own way, remind yourself about the time your state got hornswoggled out of its share of federal money by a rapacious company that knew just what it was doing, but didn’t care to make an honest assessment of the state’s needs part of the $24 million booty it picked up along the way.

 

There apparently is serious talk in state government of barring Cisco from participating in any future bids. What’s to talk about?

 

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