A bill under consideration in the Virginia Legislature would require municipalities to show strong need before building taxpayer-supported broadband networks.
The Virginia Broadband Deployment Act, sponsored by Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford, would allow local governments to own and operate an internet network only after meeting a variety of conditions, including obtaining a report by an independent consulting firm and not directly competing against private providers already providing adequate services — services that include download speeds of at least 10 megabits per second.
The proposed act, H.B. 2108, also encourages public-private partnerships to facilitate broadband expansion.
Byron, who chairs the Virginia Broadband Advisory Council, said her bill will advance the state’s goal of expediting deployment and reducing the cost of broadband access in Virginia. She said it’s supported by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, Virginia Association of Realtors and Northern Virginia Technology Council.
“If taxpayer dollars are going to be spent to build a more wired Virginia, we must ensure taxpayers get a return on that investment,” Byron wrote in a recent op-ed.
“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.”
Byron noted that Bristol is among the long list of cities with financial failing networks, and the local utility’s broadband will soon be sold to private provider Sunset Digital.
Her office didn’t return a call from Watchdog.org on Thursday.
The Taxpayers Protection Alliance is a fan of the legislation, and its president, David Williams, sent a letter to the state Legislature in support of the bill.
Williams told Watchdog it’s “a great first step in providing some oversight to the deployment of government broadband.”
Legislation encouraging unserved communities to partner with existing telecom providers as a way to bring broadband to rural areas is encouraging, he said.
“This can’t be done just by taxpayers; the private sector has spent $1 trillion over the past 10 to 12 years, so they know how to do it,” Williams said.
One aspect of the bill he’d like to see hammered down more clearly is the requirement that an independent consulting firm provide a report showing need before local governments can move forward with taxpayer-supported broadband. Although Byron’s bill mentions specifically the Center for Innovative Technology as an example, it’s unclear who all would qualify. Watchdog previously reported on how top broadband consulting firms such as Magellan Advisors and CTC Technology & Energy almost always tell governments they consult with that they should build broadband networks.
“We’re going to make sure if this does go through we’d have a truly independent group determining there is really a need,” Williams said of the lobbying effort.
Byron’s bill will undoubtedly require tweaking to have a chance at passage since it has received a chorus of criticism from municipal broadband advocates. Some of the loudest complaints have unsurprisingly come from communities where projects are underway.
That includes Virginia Beach, where the state’s largest city is undergoing a $4 million expansion of its municipal network to connect all municipal buildings and service area businesses, as well as lease fiber to private internet providers. The expansion cost is on top of about $32 million spent since 2002 to build the existing network.
In the planning of the expansion, city leaders touted the ability of neighboring cities to connect to Virginia Beach to build their own municipal broadband networks.
Councilman Ben Davenport told the Virginian-Pilot he was worried Byron’s bill could put a halt to the city’s plans. The process of determining need, developing a plan and attempting to partner with local providers would be too long and onerous, he said.
HB 2108 will soon be debated by the House Commerce and Labor Committee.