County commissioners seek lawmakers’ support

The Nash County Board of Commissioners wants help from local lawmakers in extending high-speed internet service to under-served rural areas. The topic was the longest discussed at Thursday night’s annual Nash County Legislative Dinner. Each year, commissioners meet with the local legislative delegation to present their legislation priorities. The board is looking into several options to bring broadband to areas of the county without the much-valued service, like Middlesex and surrounding areas.

Board Chairman Robbie Davis said high-speed internet is needed by schools, but it’s now also a matter of a growing number of residents needing broadband to work from home. Davis said the board is loosing credibility because it hasn’t accomplished anything to expand service. The N.C. General Assembly passed a local bill to support internet growth four years ago but language in the bill has county officials concerned. The bill says money spent on broadband expansion has to meet an economic development requirement.

N.C. Rep. Jeff Collins, R-Nash, said he would look at removing the language from the existing bill, but he wasn’t for funneling state money into a local project.

“I didn’t go to Raleigh to pull money from other counties into Nash,” Collins said. The county should continue to request funding in case any statewide money becomes available, said N.C. Sen. Angela Bryant, D-Nash.

“If any money is moving for broadband, we need to make sure Nash is getting its share,” Bryant said.

Collins — a self-proclaimed “budget waste warrior” — said he isn’t in office to create state funds to be spent in Nash County. N.C. Sen.

Rick Horner, R-Wilson, questioned how it would be possible to get broadband to every nook and cranny in the county.

“You going to run it to every trailer and mud hole in the whole county?” Horner asked. Bryant said electricity is run to every home in the county, despite what naysayers once said about it being an impossibility. Davis said county staff would get with Collins to have the current bill revised.

After the meeting, Collins told Davis he goes to bat for Nash County all the time but doesn’t believe in pork barrel spending. Other goals the board presented legislators included supporting state funding for local industrial site development; providing funding or allowing the state to improve private roads open to the public but not state maintained; and supporting funding to convert U.S.

64 into Interstate 87 from Raleigh to Norfolk through Nash County. The board also presented a list of statewide goals complied by the state county commissioners association including eliminating second primary elections; allowing sales tax redistribution flexibility beyond the current limited uses; and supporting legislation that promotes opioid prevention initiatives.

Commissioner Mary Wells spelled out the commissioners’ relationship with the legislators at the end of the meeting.

“We’ll support you as long as you support us,” Wells said.

Believe It Or Not, Broadband Access Is More Important In Peoples’ Lives Than Putin-Gate

Virginia’s first congressional district is one of those bizarre gerrymanders that makes no sense for anyone but Republican career politicians. It’s an odd concotion that stretches through 22 counties from the DC exurbs in Prince William, Fauquier and Stafford counties down through Fredericksburg south to the suburbs north of Norfolk in Middlesex, Mathews and Newport News counties. In 2012 Romney beat Obama 56.2% to 43.8%.

Last year both Trump and Clinton did worse, respectively, than Romney and Obama. Trump won 53.6% to 41.2%. The incumbent congressman, Rob Wittman, first elected in a 2007 special election after Jo Ann Davis died, hasn’t ever had a DCCC challenge.

Last year he was elected against Matt Rowe 60.9% to 35.8%. He won every county in the district but one (Fredericksburg). Whittman spent £1,040,883 on the election and Rowe spent £45,755.

The DCCC never acknowledged he was even running.

In 2018 the Democratic candidate is a progressive former Marine and a young father, Edwin Santana Jr. He lives in Stafford County with his wife and son. And they’re having a daughter in a couple of months.

We asked him to introduce himself to DWT readers by tackling an issue of local importance unlike the big national issues like TrumpCare, Putin-Gate, Climate Change, etc– but something that would make his constituents’ lives better. Before you read it, though, I want you to think about one related matter– This is how scared Wittman[1] already is of Santana’s challenge (from Wittman’s Facebook page):

“After reviewing this legislation and receiving the Congressional Budget Office score today, it is clear that this bill is not consistent with the repeal and replace principles for which I stand. I do not think this bill will do what is necessary for the short and long-term best interests of Virginians and therefore, I must oppose it.

I do believe that we can enact meaningful health care reforms that put the patient and health care provider back at the center of our health care system, but this bill is not the right answer. This doesn’t change the fact that we need to repeal Obamacare, as I have voted to do. I stand ready and willing to work with my colleagues on legislation that expands choices, increases access, and reduces costs.”

Connecting Virginians to the 21st Century
-by Edwin Santana Jr.,
candidate, VA-01

It wasn’t that long ago that I can remember watching anxiously as the yellow AOL man trudged begrudgingly from left to right across the computer screen as the digital subscriber line, what we all know as DSL, connected me to the phenomenon that was the world-wide web.

While the internet has been in existence for quite some time, it was just becoming widely commercially available in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. By my senior year in high school, the internet was being rapidly integrated into everyday life– Facebook launched shortly before my freshman year of college. At school, program suites, such as Blackboard and online databases like JSTOR (short for Journal Storage, founded 1995) were still in their nascent stages and relegated to the obscure realm of academia.

Taking the internet’s technological evolution into perspective, it is clear today that the use of– and as a prerequisite, access to– the internet has become an integral part of our daily lives.

Today the internet serves as the primary medium through which we interact with the world around us. Education, business, healthcare and many other facets of society have increasingly integrated the use of high-speed broadband internet into their operating concepts. As such, access to high-speed broadband internet no longer remains a luxury, but instead is now an essential requirement.

Far from the enhancement that the web brought to our lives a decade ago, without access to reliable and fast internet, you are now “out of the loops” in a world that is deeply interconnected and constantly evolving.

While wireless carriers such as AT&T and Verizon purport national coverage, 4G wireless connectivity has been replaced by LTE and Apple continues to pump out the latest version of their iPhone– the fact remains that there are still far too many Americans who lack access to adequate high speed internet. While this is a problem that tends to be concentrated on the socioeconomic strata and demographics most in need in our communities, it particularly effects those in less populated, rural areas where private Internet Service Providers (ISP) have had less incentive to establish mature fiber-optic networks capable of providing next generation high speed broadband internet.

But we aren’t talking about excessive luxury or “nice-to-have” here, we are talking about providing essential services and investing in the future of our communities. The National Broadband Plan, released by the FCC in 2010, provides a comprehensive overview of initiatives the FCC and other federal agencies have set forth in an attempt to increase digital literacy and realize a future in which universal broadband access is a reality for all Americans.

Under the leadership of Governor Terry McAuliffe, the Commonwealth has also made significant gains in providing access to high speed internet available in the state’s schools.

In partnership with EducationSuperHighway, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving internet access across the nation, the Governor’s office announced that 72 percent of Virginia’s schools met the minimum connectivity requirement of 100 kbs per student as specified by the FCC. This statistic is a drastic improvement from the 33 percent reported in the non-profits annual state of the states reported just two years earlier in 2014. Access within school systems is essential, but it isn’t the whole picture.

As the education system increasingly integrates into online networks and resources, access to quality high-speed internet at home has become as important element to the whole family. Broadband is a requirement for homework, home business and correspondence. Increasingly, people can keep in contact with their healthcare providers from home via web portals.

In the “internet of things” the web is increasingly connecting people, their homes and appliances, with the outside world. Just a few of the obvious benefits to these developments here include increased energy efficiency and home security. As exciting as this future sounds, it is a future that can only be realized in a state that enables that tomorrow, today through the investment in the required infrastructure and resources.

While we can’t force the hand of private entities to provide services to rural areas, other options do exist.

Municipalities have been trying for several years to bridge the gap within their communities where citizens are unserved or are offered low-quality services as unreasonable costs. The National Broadband Plan specifically recommended that Congress should make clear that local governments can build broadband networks. Federal legislation, like the Broadband Conduit Act of 2015 (HR 3805), was introduced with the intent of building new infrastructure, such as future road networks designed to readily incorporate new fiber optic cable lines without the need for disruptive additional digging.

Unfortunately, there are also initiatives at the state level that create barriers to bridging the gap in connectivity across our communities.

The Virginia Broadband Deployment Act (HB 2108), currently on Governor McAuliffe’s desk after passing the Commonwealth’s House and Senate represents one such barrier, preventing public entities from providing broadband services in unserved areas. The bill, introduced by Lynchburg Republican Kathy Byron creates a list of requirements required to be met by any locality that intends to own and operate a broadband or internet communications system3. In a clear move to insulate private interests, the bill mandates imputed private sector costs to any municipality-led effort, which would deter many local entities from offering broadband services to their citizens at reasonable costs1.

Imputed private-sector costs is analogous to price-fixing and can be best understood by a portion of the bill itself. Section 56-484.30 subdivision 2.a states:

“The locality or its affiliate shall include within its rates an amount equal to all taxes, fees, and other assessments that would be applicable to a similarly situated private provider of the same communications services, including federal, state, and local taxes; franchise fees; permit fees; pole attachment fees; and any similar fees.”

It is worth noting that the Virginia Association of Counties, has stated that this legislation is not conducive to establishing successful partnerships between private ISPs and municipally run efforts3. The bill was introduced by Delegate Byron but engineered by the Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association, allows ISPs to have their cake and eat it too.

By effectively raising the barrier to entry, ISP’s are not required to compete with municipalities who attempt to provide services on their own initiative while simultaneously insulating themselves from the costs of providing essential services to citizens in unserved areas. Section 56-484.30 subdivision 2.b states goes further to ward of potential competition:

“The locality or its affiliate shall not price any of its communications services at a level that is less than the sum of:(i) the actual direct costs of providing the service; (ii) the actual indirect costs of providing the service; and (iii) the amount determined under subdivision 2a.”

While there is an aversion to government led initiatives in the services sector, there are success stories of municipalities partnering with service providers to connect citizens. The Utopia Regional Fiber Consortium of Bristol, Virginia certainly has its flaws, but provides proof that locality-ran efforts in providing broadband services to constituents is a distinct possibility.

It is difficult to quantify the benefits of providing connectivity in a world where the internet touches almost every facet of our daily lives.

Today, people use the internet to keep in touch with relatives, medical providers, engage in distance learning and to run businesses. Investing in the infrastructure required for expansion of these services– particularly into areas currently unserved by independent providers– is an investment in the productivity of our people and our communities. Where ISP’s won’t provide services due to limited potential of short-term profits, the least we should expect our state’s elected representatives to do is get out of the way of locality-run efforts to bridge the gap in providing essential services to our citizens.

Sadly, given some of the recent actions by some of our elected representatives– particularly the ones bankrolled by these ISPs– it seems that private interests take a front seat to constituent needs.

Investing in Virginia’s future prosperity should not be tied so closely to the bottom line of shareholders and business modeling should not be the sole litmus test on whether residents of Virginia receive access to broadband services in an age where being connected is everything.

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County continues broadband bill battle

A revised version of Del. Kathy Byron’s Virginia Broadband Deployment Act passed the House and now heads to the Senate despite opposition from numerous counties–including Orange–who feared the bill would stop their efforts to bring rural broadband to tens of thousands of Virginia citizens. The bill passed the House Commerce and Labor Committee last Thursday 11-9 with one abstention. Tuesday, the bill passed the full House 72-24 (with one abstention). Del. Nick Freitas, who represents Orange County, voted against the bill, along with representatives from Roanoke, Henrico, Loudon, Norfolk, Clarke, Floyd and Virginia Beach.

Before the House voted, Del. Byron, R-Bedford, said the bill is about “government transparency.”

“For those of you though who were still listening to communication from your local government, many I would say probably weren’t aware of what the bill even did, but just were responding to alerts they were receiving from other folks that didn’t agree with what the bill did. We have met and this morning there seems to be peace in the valley,” Byron told the House prior to the floor vote. That didn’t seem to be the case to opponents last week.

Orange County Administrator Bryan David, District 4 Supervisor Jim Crozier and District 5 Supervisor Lee Frame attended the House Commerce and Labor committee meeting Thursday to express their opposition to the earlier version of Byron’s bill. Representatives from the Virginia Association of Counties (VACo), the counties of Bath, Sussex, Surry, Roanoke and King George, and the cities of Roanoke and Portsmouth also were in attendance to speak against the bill. Byron said the bill aimed to reduce local government spending of taxpayer dollars to build broadband networks in areas already covered by private providers. However, Orange County and other localities have formed or are pursuing broadband authorities (under existing provisions in the state code) and made strides to make broadband available to their citizens through municipal broadband networks that rural communities need in order to attract employers and drive down homeowners’ internet costs. David feared the initial bill would stop Orange County from pursuing its broadband project, ultimately putting the county and its citizens at a competitive disadvantage for private sector job creation, business investment, 21st century education and public safety.

The fight that started early in the session was focused on the private broadband providers versus taxpayer-funded government broadband initiatives, but shifted to a dialogue on government transparency last Thursday as Byron introduced a second substitute to her bill. That version of HB 2108 requires municipal broadband authorities to maintain transparent records showing how they revise their rates, fees and charges.

“What Del Byron did is put in amendments to the Virginia Wireless Service Authorities Act that on a first reading are pretty benign, but on a legal reading are as onerous as the full bill was when it was initially proposed,” David said last week. The county has looked to the Code of Virginia, specifically that act that dates back to 2002, to develop and implement its broadband strategies, he explained. Byron’s revision of that act is what could now halt the county’s broadband projects, he added.

“Here, after 15 years, there are folks in the cable industry who feel that it needs to be changed,” David said. “So, one of the points that we were all making from local government is that it is working just fine. All the transparency and public disclosure that everybody feels is needed is already there without any changes.”

David was one of several speakers who spoke on the bill before the committee voted. Frank Smith, president and CEO of the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority, told the committee the bill would hurt the authority’s ability to conduct business. Smith said the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) stipulations already codified in the Wireless Services Authority Act are sufficient and the new requirements in Byron’s bill could require the broadband authority to reveal proprietary information about its customers.

Byron argued last week the rewritten bill, which was criticized initially because opponents said it would limit municipal broadband initiatives, would not deal with proprietary records, and municipal broadband authorities would still be able to strike up economic development deals behind closed doors.

“Those against the substitute are essentially acknowledging their opposition to FOIA and to government being open about how they are spending the taxpayers’ dollars,” she said. David disagreed, saying the bill would limit the county’s ability to competitively negotiate with private sector partners and economic development prospects. David said the initial and revised bill (prior to the proposed Senate amendment) removes any confidentiality the county would need to negotiate a deal with a broadband provider, noting if passed it would require all negotiations happen in an open meeting before ever reaching a contract.

Removing the FOIA exemption would also mean any prospective businesses interested in discussing telecommunication needs with the county would have their proprietary information subject to FOIA, David said.

“The net effect of that is that we wouldn’t really get a second call or a second chance with any company once I had to disclose that to them,” he said. “I don’t think any body is disputing that the public/taxpayers have a right and a need to know this information, but what we see as the problem is that this removes any confidential discussions prior to a public contract being advertised, adopted, discussed and debated in public–which is the way it works. We see that as really a poison pill that takes any competitive advantage that these broadband authorities have away.”

VACo, which has publically stated its opposition of the bill, said the removal of FOIA exemptions is in direct conflict with existing law for establishing private-public partnerships and would limit the willingness of private internet service providers to explore and potentially partner successfully with localities to provide broadband. Such exemptions were adopted by the legislature to give localities the ability to partner with private sector providers in service provision, the organization has said, and without them, trade secrets and intellectual property will be open to the public and competitors. David said while Byron and her supporters have claimed the bill is to protect taxpayers, the Orange County Supervisors have taken the necessary steps to provide fiduciary oversight, transparency and accountability to the Orange County taxpayers by appointing themselves as the members of the authority. Orange County has joined others including Franklin County, Nelson County, the City of Virginia Beach, Louisa, Bedford, Rockbridge, Caroline, the City of Alexandria and Roanoke City in passing resolutions condemning the bill.

“Affordable and reliable high-speed broadband in rural Virginia is needed now, not sometime in the future,” David said in conclusion before the committee. “The private sector has not been willing to deploy such service after all these years of discussion and waiting.

In my opinion we should not be debating private or public. It should be private, public-private, public or whatever combination works best to ensure the deployment of affordable and reliable high-speed broadband in rural Virginia, now, today, and thereby, securing our economic well-being and continuing our desirable quality of life.”

The Virginia Constitution requires each bill to be read three times on three different days before it can be voted on and sent to the other body’s chamber for a similar procedure. The bill was read for the first time before the House on Saturday and on Monday was engrossed by a voice vote. On Tuesday, crossover day, the bill was read for a third time and passed by a recorded vote. While critics were concerned about language in the bill pertaining to confidentiality between local broadband authorities and private sector providers that she didn’t think were valid concerns, Byron said she had agreed to make an amendment to the bill to remove that sentence once it goes over to the Senate.

Del. David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, urged legislators to trust Byron.

“There have been a lot of discussions on this bill and a lot of concerns over the language of the bill as it came forward,” he said, however, delegates should make sure the bill is amended the way they hope it would be. David said if the bill is amended to remove that language, the county would have no objection to it.

“I’m very comfortable with that language because that only puts into code what we are going to do as a matter of standard practice anyway for the taxpayers of Orange County, meaning having transparency and open records,” he said.

“I think my contribution, among a lot of others, has led us to the point now where we now are,” David added, saying the county can continue its work of trying to successfully implement its broadband projects.