General Assembly bill threatens Internet initiative

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By Chris Teale (File photo)

The city’s municipal broadband Internet initiative could be under threat in the Virginia House of Delegates, which advanced a bill opponents say curbs competition for cable companies.

Introduced by Delegate Kathy Byron (R-22) and called the Virginia Broadband Deployment Act, the legislation looks to make it easier to bring broadband Internet to underserved rural areas and strictly regulate municipalities that try to create their own broadband systems.

The bill passed the full House on Tuesday by a 72-24 margin, with one abstention. As part of the General Assembly’s
so-called “crossover” period that began yesterday where passed bills are heard by the other chamber, it will now be debated by the Virginia State Senate.

Alexandria’s own broad- band Internet initiative gathered steam last year, after city officials issued a request for information and received 10 responses from companies in the private sector.

Initially, the city would look to build a fiber optic network to connect city facilities like schools, libraries and recreation centers. Private companies could then rent use of the fiber infrastructure and provide service to residential and commercial users in a public-private partnership.

Advocates for the broadband initiative said Byron’s bill would make it difficult for the government to help open up the market to competition. Instead, existing monopolies would remain in place.

Currently, only Comcast holds a franchise agreement to provide cable Internet, television and telephone in the city. That contract was extended last year.

“This is an effort to get rid of competition and prevent competition from sprouting up,” said Vice Mayor Justin Wilson. “This is a dangerous bill in my view, and certainly anybody who likes the lack of consumer choice and the lack of competition that currently exists will love this bill.”

But proponents of the bill say it prioritizes providing broadband Internet to the areas of the state where it is lacking. A revised version passed the House Committee on Commerce and Labor by an 11-9 margin on February 2.

The Richmond-based Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association, which lobbies the General Assembly on cable television and telecommunications, supports Byron’s bill. In a letter posted on its website, VCTA president Ray LaMura said the priority must be unserved areas.

“The VCTA believes that the General Assembly should debate and establish a state policy to determine if local governments should be risking public dollars to build duplicative networks competing with the private sector that it also regulates, taxes and serves as the gatekeeper to the rights of way used to deploy broadband,” LaMura wrote. “[There] are still Virginians, mostly in rural areas, without broadband service. As such, taxpayer funds should be prioritized for getting these residents broadband service, not building more broadband to people and businesses that already have it.”

Wilson noted that the bill has not been subject to party-line voting, as is so often the case in the House of Delegates, with legislators voting for and against regardless of their party affiliation. He said that it appeared many delegates wanted the government to be involved in promoting broadband Internet and competition.

“I think particularly in some of the rural areas of the state, there is a realization that without public involvement in some of these things, they’re just not going to see the kind of broadband deployment that is really essential to economic growth in some of these areas,” Wilson said. “We take for granted having at least one option that is passable in some cases. You have parts of the state where there just isn’t that, or at least it’s very substandard.”

In a statement, officials with the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce criticized the bill as stifling competition and preventing economic development in rural and urban areas that can be sparked by strong Internet offerings.

“As currently written, [the bill] protects incumbent monopoly Internet providers from needing to compete with communities trying to modernize their local broadband infrastructure,” chamber officials said. “By imposing barriers on local communities trying to create competition by investing public resources where private companies have not, [the bill] effectively kills competition, stifles economic development, and costs jobs.”

According to a memo sent by city staff last March, the city’s broadband initiative would cost around $8 million. Michael Stewart, the city’s deputy finance director, said at the time that estimate was based on rough architectural assumptions on how more than 80 city facilities can be connected, the amount of cable required and the cost to dig up the road and install it.

Funding is slated to come from a variety of sources, including from the city’s capital budget. The Federal Communications Commission also awards grants under its E-Rate Modernization Program to connect schools and libraries to broadband.

Wilson said given the benefits of the broadband Internet initiative for all residents and businesses, it should be able to proceed without hindrance from the General Assembly.

“I think that we have an opportunity to do a really exciting public-private partnership to expand broadband here in the city, and the last thing we should be doing is restricting those kinds of opportunities,” he said. “I don’t know what problem this bill is seeking to solve, but it certainly creates a bunch of problems as it was originally proposed, and even with the amendments I’m deeply skeptical what the purpose is.”

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