A bill that would have required Virginia cities to show the need before building taxpayer-supported broadband networks has passed the state House, but includes a whittled-down version of its original language.
The bill now mainly focuses on transparency among municipal broadband networks rather than attempting to curb their growth. Del. Kathy Byron’s Virginia Broadband Deployment Act faced strong resistance from municipalities, as well as some fellow GOP members in the Legislature who are advocates of growing rural broadband whether private providers or government is involved in the operation.
That includes Republican Sen. Frank Wagner, who represents Virginia Beach, a city now looking to expand its broadband network. He told the News & Advance the state should encourage expansion of high-speed internet by any provider.
“I know this bill now in its current form, it doesn’t impact anything, really; it just provides more information to folks,” Wagner said.
Byron’s legislation passed the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee on Monday, but it’s a shell of its former self. It functions now primarily to add language to the state’s Wireless Service Authorities Act to require that broadband authorities maintain open records showing they comply with the act’s requirements on rates, fees and charges.
The bill as originally introduced would have required local governments to obtain a report by an independent consulting firm demonstrating why the network needed to be built. It also prevented governments from directly competing against providers already offering download speeds of at least 10 megabits per second while encouraging cities to partner with private providers to expand internet access.
Byron wrote in an op-ed that “we must ensure taxpayers get a return on that investment” when public money is used to facilitate broadband expansion.
Byron, who chairs the state Broadband Advisory Council, has said she plans to hold hearings across the state in the next year to further discuss how to increase access in a fiscally responsible manner.
David Williams, president of Taxpayers Protection Alliance, was among those who supported the bill, sending a letter to the Legislature last month. He called the latest developments with the legislation “unfortunate.”
“Taxpayers need oversight of these projects and we need answers,” he told Watchdog.org. “When you have watered-down bills like this you don’t get the oversight to make sure taxpayers dollars aren’t wasted.”
TPA recently started a website that shows via a map the extent of municipal broadband projects — and the debts that many of them have incurred — around the country. There are several examples of taxpayer-supported projects in Virginia that have lost millions of public money.
Williams said he plans to keep a close eye on how the failure of this legislation affects other potential municipal-broadband limiting bills around the country. He hopes advocates study what happened in Virginia to improve legislation elsewhere.
“I’m curious what happens in other states,” he said. “I hope this is an isolated incident.”