RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Five Virginia counties are getting grants to help extend broadband access in rural areas. Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s office says nearly $945,000 in grants will go to Albemarle, Augusta, Bland, Gloucester and Greensville counties.
The Virginia Telecommunication Initiative is a new program that aims to help communities team up with service providers to expand broadband in underserved areas.
McAuliffe says in a statement that broadband access is an “essential tool” to helping communities attract new business and support its schools and students.
The Virginia House has passed a new bill1, supported by the broadband industry, that would prevent locals from building their own broadband networks (or partnering with private companies) — even in locations incumbent ISPs have neglected. Many local news outlets and websites like Stop The Cap2 have noted the bill’s sponsor, Virginia’s Delegate Kathy Byron3, has been a proud recipient of telecom industry cash for years, and is also on the council of ALEC, the organization ISPs use to ghost write legislation they then lobby (read: pay) to have passed.
Byron softened the language of the bill somewhat in order to ease the bill’s passage. She claims the bill now focuses on ensuring that municipal broadband operators keep “transparent records,” but existing (and already hamstrung) municipal operations in Roanoke, Salem and Roanoke and Botetourt counties already have open books and records — and public board meetings. Critics say the bill still exists primarily to protect state duopolies from communities looking to do something about years of sub-standard service and regional broadband market failure. They also complained the bill also opens up municipal broadband providers to intense scrutiny from state boards and other councils that tend to be stocked with AT&T and other ISP lobbyists — or regulators whose primary purpose is protecting giant telecom company revenues in exchange for campaign contributions.
The bill is, as they say, a solution in search of a problem. It’s unclear if the bill in its current form will pass the Virginia senate. This is the second bill crafted in Virginia that restricts community municipal broadband options, and there are more than 20 such bills currently in place in states around the country.
“Once again, we see a state legislature prioritizing the anti-competitive instincts of a few telephone companies over the need for more investment and the desire for more choices in rural communities across their state,” notes Christopher Mitchell, Director of the Community Broadband Networks initiative at the Institute for Local Self Reliance5, a group that advocating for the communities most politicians pretend to serve. “Virginia’s communities need more investment and more choices from ISPs, not new barriers crafted by powerful lobbyists in Richmond.”
By Shayne Dwyer/WDBJ7 | Posted: Tue 6:30 PM, Feb 07, 2017 | Updated: Tue 6:49 PM, Feb 07, 2017
RICHMOND, Va. (WDBJ7) We’re following developments in Richmond tonight on a heavily criticized bill affecting municipal broadband.
Tuesday morning the Virginia House of Delegates passed the “Wireless Services Authority Act.” Delegate Kathy Byron of Bedford sponsored the legislation. Originally the bill would have required local governments share confidential customer pricing agreements with the public, and thus competitors. The bill went through two substitutions and on the house floor Tuesday, Byron promised to remove that regulation restricting confidentiality when the bill makes it to a senate committee.
Frank Smith is the President and CEO of the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority. He worked in Richmond with lawmakers to help change the bill This version, with the promise by Byron, is something the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority said it can live with. “I affectionately called it the broadband death star bill and we’re glad that the delegate has listened to us and to our concerns, and to other members of her constituents,” Smith said. “So we think that the fact that this has changed from a bill that we thought was extremely harmful to our efforts to provide municipal broadband and now it’s to the point where it actually restates and reinforces the laws as far as open books and open rates which we do right now.”
Smith said the RVBA supports transparency and open information, but the sharing of specific contract pricing and negotiations with customers would have severely impacted its success. He added that the RVBA wasn’t the only one with problems with the bill, adding that other municipalities across Virginia had issues with it and even the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, a national organization, had taken a stance against it. Smith said major IT companies like Google, Netflix, Nokia, and others had written letters against the previous versions of the bill.
According to Smith, there was some support for the bill – but that support came from competing Internet Service Providers.
“Primarily I would say that it was some of the incumbent providers, in particular in the cable association,” Smith said.
The bill still needs to clear the Senate before it could go to the Governor’s desk for signing.