A state House bill could limit municipal broadband initiatives in Virginia and derail expansion in the Roanoke Valley less than a year after the local authority landed its first customer.
Del. Kathy Byron, R-Campbell, said Thursday that the aim of the legislation she introduced is to limit tax money spent on government-subsidized internet service in areas already covered by private providers. The intent, she said, isn’t to kill local efforts to build a government-owned network across the region.
That, however, would be the effect for the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority, according to Roanoke City Manager Chris Morrill.
“It’s too hard to speculate at this point,” he said. “But the way it’s written, I can’t imagine how [the authority] could [survive]. And we would have lost this important investment that we’ve made.”
The authority in April 2016 announced the lighting of a 47-mile broadband network running through Roanoke, Salem and parts of Botetourt and Roanoke counties. The following month, Roanoke County supervisors approved spending $3.4 million on an expansion of the network. That’s in addition to $6.2 million set aside for the initial buildout and six years of operating costs.
“I just think government needs to be very cautious about investing taxpayer dollars in these networks that they not only have to be able to manage, but they also have to maintain them,” Byron said, explaining her bill, the Virginia Broadband Deployment Act. “Maintaining this type of stuff is much better done by private business.”
Private providers have opposed municipal broadband both in Roanoke and across the country. Previously chairwoman of the state Broadband Advisory Council, Byron counts private providers among her campaign donors.
Since 1998, she has received $36,100 from Verizon, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Only the Republican Party of Virginia has contributed more to Byron’s campaigns during that span.
Other donation totals include $15,000 from the Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association, $9,250 from AT&T, $3,500 from CenturyLink and $3,000 from Comcast.
A key component of her bill defines “unserved areas” as localities where users are generally unable to download internet content at a minimum of 10 megabits per second. Net-flix, for example, requires a 5 Mbps connection to stream high-definition videos.
Localities seeking to build municipal networks would be required to demonstrate how they would limit service to only these areas and minimize competition with private providers.
The bill’s 10 Mbps threshold is too low, said Morrill and authority spokeswoman Jenn Eddy.
About 98 percent of households with Roanoke ZIP codes have access to a 10 Mbps connection, according to data from Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology, an economic development nonprofit group focused on technology. Even in more rural areas around Bent Mountain, 78 percent of households meet the threshold.
“We are clearly underserved to be economically competitive. But this bill says that we are not,” Morrill said.
The authority advertises the capability of delivering 200 gigabits per second through its network, or 20,000 times the minimum threshold Byron proposed.
Morrill said those are the kinds of speeds Roanoke will need for projects like its new innovation corridor, where the city and the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute hope to attract high-tech health care employers.
Service already being offered wouldn’t be affected. But it could affect expansion efforts like the one planned by the local authority.
The bill also would regulate municipal rates, requiring that they include the same costs private providers pay for things like taxes and fees. This would remove some of the competitive price advantages authorities enjoy over private companies, translating into more expensive service for customers.
Eddy said lawyers still are sorting through the bill to see exactly how it would affect the authority, but officials already fear it would hurt their ability to grow and offer competitive rates.
“It may serve the incumbent [providers] to reduce competition, but it does not serve citizens, it does not create jobs,” Morrill said. “It doesn’t do all the things we’re working toward here.”
Byron said she is still “tweaking” the bill as it waits committee assignment, though she doesn’t expect major changes.
“Certainly, after localities have invested a lot of funds, the intent was not to say, ‘OK, you can no longer do this,’ ” Byron said. “We certainly had to take that into consideration, but we had to put something into place quickly before we continue down this path.”