In its Jan. 13 editorial (“A dangerous bill”) The Roanoke Times called the Virginia Broadband Deployment Act (House Bill 2108), which I am sponsoring, “The most dangerous bill now pending before the General Assembly…” Such outrageous hyperbole is an excellent illustration of why opinion polling indicates the public has lost faith in the fairness, impartiality and objectivity of the media.
No one from The Roanoke Times editorial page staff took the time to contact me prior to publishing the broadside. This may be yet another example of media arrogance manifesting itself as a lack of common courtesy. But, I believe the real culprit to be something far more dangerous: the editorial’s author was not going to risk being confused by the facts.
The editorial page of The Roanoke Times is not alone in mischaracterizing what House Bill 2108 would do. Promoters of municipal broadband systems, primarily bureaucrats who run local governments, contend that municipal broadband systems will be the savior of economic development across the state. Worse, they falsely assert the Virginia Broadband Deployment Act will stifle economic development.
Not only are these assertions wrong, they establish a false narrative to thwart important taxpayer protections from becoming law in Virginia. Perhaps it’s time to consider some facts:
1. Fact: The legislation establishes a priority of delivering broadband to unserved Virginians. Using taxpayer funding to build duplicative systems, which reach only businesses and government that already have access to broadband, doesn’t address the very real challenge of providing service to areas that currently don’t have it.
2. Fact: Building, operating and maintaining a broadband system in the ever-changing technology environment is an expensive and risky business. These systems require constant updates and upgrades to stay on top of the latest technologies in order to bring value to customers. Most local governments have no expertise in managing or maintaining systems of that complexity.
3. Fact: The vast majority of municipal broadband systems across the country that have tried to compete with the private sector have failed, leaving taxpayers holding the bag. You don’t have to travel far to find a good example of a debacle in this area: the City of Bristol’s failed municipal broadband system has left taxpayers holding the bag — and the bill — for an $80 million loss.
4. Fact: Significant portions of the provisions of the Virginia Broadband Deployment Act come directly from best practices identified by Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology (CIT) and from recommendations included in the State Auditors Report of Bristol’s failed municipal system. If we are not going follow best practices or learn from the mistakes made, how can we hope to effectively manage these systems in the future?
I would have been proud to explain those facts to The Roanoke Times editorial board. But throughout my time in public service, I’ve found it challenging to respond to questions that are never asked.
Had someone contacted me, I would have told them about my years of experience serving on Virginia’s Broadband Advisory Council, which I currently serve as chairman. The purpose of the Council is “to advise the Governor on policy and funding priorities to expedite deployment and reduce the cost of broadband access in the Commonwealth.” The Virginia Broadband Deployment Act advances that goal. That’s why legislators serving on the Council support House Bill 2108. And, we’re in good company: The Virginia Chamber of Commerce, the Virginia Association of Realtors and the Northern Virginia Technology Council have all indicated their support for House Bill 2108.
If taxpayer dollars are going to be spent to build a more wired Virginia, we must ensure taxpayers get a return on that investment. This bill encourages local governments to try to partner with existing providers to extend broadband to unserved areas by leveraging one of the fastest networks in the country. Even in the rare situations where it’s determined that’s not feasible, municipalities still have a pathway to build their own networks to reach unserved residents. But, that pathway would include accountability provisions to protect the investment of taxpayers.
By now, we should all know how important it is for Virginia to have a stronger broadband network. I also know that developing that network — and expanding access — can only help drive economic development across the state. By passing the Virginia Broadband Deployment Act, we’ll be a lot closer to making that happen for the benefit of everyone.