Roanoke, Virginia, group fears lawmaker's proposal could hinder muni broadband

Virginia is emerging as the latest battleground in the municipal broadband debate as a new state house bill could hinder network expansion that the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority seeks to accomplish.

Del. Kathy Byron, R-Campbell, according to a report in The Roanoke Times, said that the proposed bill is focused on reducing how much tax money is used to fund public sector subsidized broadband service in areas where an incumbent telco or cable operator is present.

Byron added that the goal is not to thwart efforts to build a government-owned network.

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Chris Morrill, Roanoke City Manager, disagreed and added that the bill could put its network investment in peril.

“It’s too hard to speculate at this point,” he said. “But the way it’s written, I can’t imagine how [the authority] could [survive]. And we would have lost this important investment that we’ve made.”

In April, the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority announced it would light a 47-mile middle mile network with points in Roanoke, Salem and parts of Botetourt and Roanoke counties.

Later, the Roanoke County supervisors approved a $3.4 million network expansion plan, which is in addition to $6.2 million that was allocated to conduct the initial buildout and six years of operating costs.

Being an open access network, the service provider will offer various wholesale services to local service providers. 

Interestingly, The Roanoke Times report citing the Virginia Public Access Project, revealed that Byron has continued to receive donations from a number of incumbent service providers, including Verizon, AT&T, CenturyLink and Comcast. Verizon has been the largest contributor, providing her with $36,100 since 1998, while AT&T, CenturyLink and Comcast contributed $9,250, $3,500, and $3,000.

Byron also received $15,000 from the Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association.

One of the tenets of Byron’s proposal is to define “unserved areas” as those where consumers and businesses can’t get access to a 10 Mbps connection. Other towns and cities that want to build a municipal network would have to show how they would limit service areas deemed unserved and ensure they are not overbuilding existing service providers.

Morrill countered that the 10 Mbps definition does not reflect the reality of what users can get today. According to data collected from Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology, nearly 98% of households that have Roanoke ZIP codes can get access to a 10 Mbps speed tier.

“We are clearly underserved to be economically competitive. But this bill says that we are not,” Morrill said.

Virginia is not the only state where municipalities are hindered by rules that limit how far they can expand their network.

An effort by outgoing FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to revamp existing municipal broadband laws in North Carolina and Tennessee was dealt a major blow last year when a Sixth Circuit court panel struck down the regulator’s 2015 order.

The court said that the FCC’s application of Section 706 of the 1996 Telecom Act is not enough to overturn state law.

In February 2015, the FCC voted 3-2 along party lines to preempt elements of state laws in North Carolina and Tennessee that were designed to restrict municipal providers in these communities from providing broadband service outside of their current serving areas.