RICHMOND — Del. Kathy Byron’s bill that could limit municipal broadband initiatives across Virginia is “too restrictive,” said a top official from the Center for Innovative Technology.
While Byron, R-Bedford, has said much of her proposed legislation comes directly from CIT’s recommendations, the bill does not align with the organization’s best practices, said Sandie Terry, the vice president of broadband.
After hearing of Terry’s comments, CIT Senior Vice President Bob Stolle clarified that the organization has not taken a formal stance on Byron’s bill. CIT is still sorting through the bill’s details and it’s too early to say whether it represents the organization’s best practices, he said.
The group is working with both supporters and opponents of the legislation, and will only take a stance if it’s asked to while discussing the issue with Virginia’s secretary of technology or the governor, Stolle said.
In the meantime, Terry said Wednesday she doesn’t believe municipal broadband initiatives should be limited to unserved areas, which is effectively what Byron’s House Bill 2108 would do.
“We [at CIT] are not just focused on unserved areas,” she said. “That’s where the bulk of our work goes, because that’s what we’re tasked with. But when we work with a community, a locality, we look at all aspects of broadband.”
Byron appeared at a news conference for her bill Thursday flanked by representatives from Cox Communications, the Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association and the Virginia and Northern Virginia chambers of commerce.
During the half-hour news conference, Byron said her bill comes, in large part, from the center’s recommendations for municipal broadband, as she did on the House floor and in a Roanoke Times letter to the editor Wednesday. She was taken aback when told of Terry’s comments to the contrary.
“I’m really surprised she said that,” Byron said. “The misinformation and hyperbole that people are using is distracting from the real issue at hand.” Byron has said on several occasions that her bill has been misunderstood because some people interpret it as preventing municipal broadband networks.
The bill does not prevent localities from creating taxpayer-funded broadband networks, but does limit their ability to expand into areas already served by private providers. Representatives from the city of Roanoke, Franklin and Rockbridge counties and the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority have said that clause could effectively kill their municipal broadband initiatives.
Constituents frequently contact Byron’s office believing government-funded broadband networks will provide internet service to their rural homes, the delegate said. The Roanoke Valley authority and others are not designed to help the underserved, but rather, focus on serving businesses, government buildings and schools and at the same time, act as competition to legacy providers, which can lead to lower internet costs.
“Those people that are out in our communities that are screaming for us to solve some of their problems that geographically make it difficult to reach that last mile are thinking that the government is going to solve their problems and they are not aware that that’s not going to happen,” Byron said.
Terry, of the Center for Innovative Technology, said she is able to see both sides of the municipal broadband debate and typically keeps a low profile during such arguments. While she agrees any community without access to download speeds of at least 10 megabits per second and upload speeds of 1 Mbps counts as unserved — as Byron’s bill stipulates — she thinks public and private providers need to work together to address coverage issues.
“But this is not working together,” Terry said. “Local governments cannot be restricted to only help in unserved areas. They’ve got to make sure their businesses have what they need. They’ve got to make sure the community has got what it needs.”
“Broadband is a necessity it’s complicated it’s expensive and it is convoluted in how we got to this point,” Terry added in a written statement. “The devil is in the details. The details of this bill are too restrictive and the intent is understood. We cannot fix the problems and prepare for the future by fighting. Public and private must partner.”
In a win for legacy telecommunications providers, a federal appeals court ruled earlier this year the Federal Communications Commission could not block North Carolina and Tennessee from setting limits on municipal broadband expansion. The court battle stemmed from state laws forbidding or restricting municipal broadband expansions, similar to what Byron’s proposed legislation would enact if passed.
Now the fight between big telecom and competition-inducing municipal networks is spilling over to states across the country, Virginia included.
While proposed legislation similar to Byron’s is popping up in other states, Byron said the bill did not come directly from legacy telecommunications providers, but rather, came from her time serving as the chairwoman of the state Broadband Advisory Council. But when legislative services drafted the bill, they did reach out to telecommunications providers for some of the language, Byron said.
Ray LaMura, the cable telecommunications association president, lauded Byron’s bill at the news conference. The association, which has fought for years against the creation and expansion of the Roanoke broadband authority, is the lobbying arm of telecommunications companies like Cox, Comcast and Shentel.
“For the first time, she is having the commonwealth of Virginia really focus on deployment to unserved Virginians,” he said. “That is the focus of using taxpayer dollars to reach the unserved.”
Private telecommunications providers, some of Byron’s top campaign donors, have opposed municipal broadband in Roanoke and across the country. Verizon is Byron’s second highest campaign donor and she has received other donations from the Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association, AT&T, Comcast and CenturyLink, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.