Salem council opposes broadband-limiting bill

The Salem City Council added its voice Monday to those censuring a General Assembly bill that local leaders fear will hobble the region’s burgeoning broadband initiative. House Bill 2108, still awaiting its first committee hearing, would restrict where municipal broadband could be offered in communities already connected to private carriers. The measure’s patron, Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford, has described it as an effort to safeguard taxpayer dollars.

But its service restrictions have been rebuffed by localities as unreasonable and an impediment to efforts to make local broadband options more competitive in an economy where high-speed internet is essential.

“There is no doubt in my mind that this bill would kill the economic development benefits realized from better broadband speeds, better access,” said Mayor Randy Foley, a partner in a local software firm. The city council — which invested about $2.5 million in the still-new Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority — unanimously passed a resolution Monday night urging lawmakers to vote down the bill. The statement mirrors other resolutions passed last week by officials in Franklin County and Roanoke. Other communities around the state are adopting similar measures, Salem officials said.

“It’s been almost universally opposed,” City Manager Kevin Boggess said of locality reaction.

The bill, backed by business groups like the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, lays out new regulations for public broadband networks and seeks to minimize competition with private providers. One key section defines “unserved” areas as spots where average internet speeds are less than 10 megabits per second. Municipal advocates maintain that threshold is too low.

In the Roanoke Valley, about 98 percent of the region has 10 Mbps service, according to Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology. Seventy-eight percent of rural Bent Mountain meets the standard. The Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority, which serves commercial and institutional customers, advertises speeds of 200 gigabits per second.

Salem’s resolution said the General Assembly bill threatens to hinder the region’s competitiveness and “create de facto private monopolies that lack the incentive to expand high-speed quality and affordable internet services to all areas of our region.”

Byron, chairwoman of Virginia’s Broadband Advisory Council, has pushed back against the criticism and described it as hyperbolic.

The bill prioritizes helping Virginians currently without internet access, she said, and guards against pricey blunders like the failed Bristol Virginia Utilities Authority.

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