A $33 million expansion of West Virginia’s emergency communications tower network will nearly double its capacity and, for the first time, allow commercial providers to use it to make high-speed Internet available to residents in rural communities.

The two-year project includes up to 17 new microwave towers and new radio equipment and satellite dishes at the existing 90 tower sites. The state is using federal economic stimulus funding to pay for the project, the Sunday Gazette-Mail reported.

Up to a third of the network’s total bandwidth capacity will be allocated for commercial use, said Gale Given, the state’s chief technology officer.

“There will be capacity available for private entities, as outlined in the grant application,” Given said. “At the end of the day, there will be private companies on there.”

The existing network, called the Statewide Interoperable Radio Network, is used only by first responders, police officers, firefighters, 911 operators and paramedics. It links counties’ emergency communications networks.

“You’re going to be able to put much more (information and data) on there on the broadband side,” said Joe Gonzalez, communications director with state Office of Emergency Medical Services.

When the upgrade is completed, the towers, which are located on buildings and mountaintops, will cover 87 percent of the state. Radio use is strictly restricted in a 100-square-mile area surrounding the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank.

“A radio will work almost everywhere else in the state,” said Gonzalez.

Gonzalez said only one existing tower lost service during the June 29 derecho, for four hours, after a generator broke down in Marshall County.

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