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Change.org Petition: CA Lawmakers, Vote for Greater Local Authority, Don't Abandon Copper Yet

The California State Assembly will soon vote on three bills that have significant implications for rural Internet access initiatives in the Golden State. An online Change.org petition is asking you to urge lawmakers to give local communities the authority to determine their own Internet access needs.

On April 20th, 2016, the State Assembly will vote on a bill to provide state funding for community-based efforts aimed at improving broadband access in rural areas. And during the current session this week, California Represenatives will vote on two additional bills, drafted by lobbying groups working for the telecom industry, which seek to give incumbent providers even greater power to control the quality and price of Internet access options that are available in these rural communities.

From the petition:

Bill AB1758 was drafted by rural broadband activists and sponsored by assemblymen Mark Stone, Eduardo Garcia, Marc Levine, and Mike McGuire. It extends state funding and grant programs to local agencies and consortiums to plan and build community based internet solutions in communities throughout the state that have been ignored by big telcom. The bill requires a super majority to move from committee to vote. Committee members need to hear from people around the state to move this bill forward. If it dies in committee, funding will cease, and rural communities around the state will be at the mercy of AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner, etc. AB1758 comes to discussion on April 20th, 2016.

The petition describes two other bills up for consideration, AB2130 and AB2395, which will greatly influence the use of California Advanced Services Funds, allowing large corporate cable and telecom incumbents access to those funds. Local communities will have very little opportunities to obtain those same grants under the proposed changes.

One of these bills will allow AT&T to retire copper lines; rural areas are not ready for such an abrupt change. We've covered how AT&T and other big incumbents have pressed state legislatures for the ability to abandon copper in favor for cheaper technology.

Check out the online petition for more detail.

More Colorado Communities Shut Out State Barriers At The Voting Booth

Once again, local communities in Colorado chose to shout out to leaders at the Capitol and tell them, "We reclaim local telecommunications authority!"

Nine more towns in the Centennial State voted on Tuesday to opt out of 2005's SB 152. Here are the unofficial results from local communities that can't be any more direct at telling state leaders to let them chart their own connectivity destiny:

Akron, population 1,700 and located in the center of the state, passed its ballot measure with 92 percent of votes cast supporting the opt-out.

Buena Vista, also near Colorado's heartland, chose to approve to reclaim local authority when 77 percent of those casting votes chose to opt out. There are approximately 2,600 people in the town located at the foot of the Collegiate Peaks in the Rockies. Here is Buena Vista's sample ballot.

The town of Fruita, home to approximately 12,600 people, approved the measure to reclaim local authority with 86 percent of votes cast. Now, when they celebrate the Mike the Headless Chicken Festival, the Fruitans will have even more to cheer.

Orchard City, another western community, approved their ballot measure when 84 percent of voters deciding the issue chose to opt out. There are approximately 3,100 people here and a local cooperative, the Delta-Montrose Electric Association (DMEA) has started Phase I of  its Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network in the region. According to an August article in the Delta County Independent, Delta County Economic Development (DCED) has encouraged local towns, including Orchard City, to ask voters to opt out of SB 152. With the restriction removed, local towns can now collaborate with providers like DMEA.

In southwest Colorado is Pagosa Springs, where 83 percent of those voting supported the ballot measure to opt out. There are 1,700 people living in the community where many of the homes are vacation properties. Whether or not to reclaim local telecommunications authority was the only ballot issue in Pagosa Springs.

Silver Cliff began as a mining town and is home to only 587 people in the south central Wet Mountain Valley. Voters passed the ballot measure to opt-out of SB 152 with 80 percent of votes cast.

In the north central part of the state sits Wellington, population approximately 6,200. The community has some limited fiber and their ballot initiative specifically states that they intend to study the feasibility and viability of publicly provided services. Their initiative passed with 83 percent of the vote:

WITHOUT INCREASING TAXES, WITH THE INTENT OF STUDYING FEASIBILITY AND IN THE FUTURE EVALUATING THE VIABILITY OF THE TOWN OF WELLINGTON POTENTIALLY PROVIDING SERVICES, SHALL THE CITIZENS OF THE TOWN OF WELLINGTON, COLORADO, ESTABLISH A TOWN RIGHT TO PROVIDE some or ALL of the SERVICES RESTRICTED SINCE 2005 BY TITLE 29, ARTICLE 27 OF THE COLORADO REVISED STATUTES, DESCRIBED AS "ADVANCES SERVICES," "TELECOMMUNICATIONS SERVICES" AND "CABLE TELEVISION SERVICES," INCLUDING ANY NEW AND IMPROVED HIGH BANDWIDTH SERVICES BASED ON FUTURE TECHNOLOGIES, UTILIZING COMMUNITY OWNED AND PRIVATELY OWNED AND CONTRACTED FOR INFRASTRUCTURE INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO EXISTING FIBER OPTIC NETWORK, EITHER DIRECTLY OR INDIRECTLY WITH PUBLIC OR PRIVATE SECTOR PARTNERS, TO POTENTIAL SUBSCRIBERS THAT MAY INCLUDE TELECOMMUNICATIONS SERVICE PROVIDERS, RESIDENTIAL OR COMMERCIAL USERS WITHIN THE Town ?

Another small community, Westcliffe with 568 people, also took the issue to the voters. Of those voting on Ballot Question A, 76 percent voted "yes" to reclaim local telecommunications authority. The town is located at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Custer County.

Two weeks ago, we told you about Mancos where community leaders want to explore the possibility of using existing publicly owned fiber for better connectivity. In Mancos, the Board of Trustees of the community of 1,300 recognized that the bill was anti-competitive and passed a resolution urging voters to approve the opt-out. As the Town Administrator acknowledged, reclaiming local authority, "gives us a lot more leeway." Mancos wants to have the freedom to investigate public projects and public private partnerships. Voters agreed and 86 percent of those casting ballots approved the measure.

C'mon Already!

Last November nearly 50 local communities sent a message loud and clear to the state legislature that they want the freedom to make their own decisions about connectivity. Opting out of SB 152 does not mean a community will build a muni but allows them to explore the possibility of serving themselves or using their own fiber assets to work with private sector partners.

For these communities, there is no good that comes from SB 152. Its only purpose is to limit possibilities and restrict competition in favor of the big corporate providers who lobbied so hard to get it passed in 2005.

We've said it before and we'll say it again. Rather than force local communities to spend local funds on these referendums to reclaim a right that was taken away from them by the state in 2005, Colorado needs to repeal the barriers erected by SB 152.

Mancos Voters The Latest To Decide Local Authority In Colorado

Mancos, a rural community of about 1,300 in rural southwest Colorado, hopes to join over 50 other communities across the state that have reclaimed local telecommunications authority. On April 5th, the town will decide whether to exempt itself from SB 152, Colorado's 2005 state law that removed local choice from municipalities and local governments.

Located at the base of the Mesa Verde National Park, Mancos is best known for outdoor recreation and as the gateway to the park, home to the historic Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings. Rangeland and mountains surround the community.

The Pine River Times Journal reports that Mancos is looking to utilize 3,300 feet of fiber optic assets already in place. The fiber now connects municipal facilities but community leaders want to have the option to use the network for businesses, residents, or to provide Wi-Fi to visitors. SB 152 precludes Mancos from using their publicly owned fiber for any of those purposes without first opting out.

On March 9th, the Town Board of Trustees approved a resolution encouraging voters to pass the ballot initiative that will reclaim local authority. They have information about the ballot question and what it will mean for the community on their website.

“It’s an anti-competition bill [SB 152],” [Mancos Town Administrator Andrea Phillips] said. “[Exempting out] gives us a lot more leeway.”

Mancos has no specific plans to develop a municipal fiber network but, like many other communities that opted out last November, they want the ability to do so or to work with a private sector partner. Nearby Dolores is collaborating with Montezuma County; the two have contracted jointly for a feasibility study. 

According a March 16th Pine River Times Journal article, Dolores and Montezuma County will put the issue to voters in November. Jim McClain, IT Manager for the county said:

“Opting out unties our hands in order to build up the system. It’s like we build the road, and then private companies provide the service on that road.” 

“When people and businesses are thinking of moving here, the first thing they want to know is if there is broadband.” 

In Mancos, the local Chamber of Commerce is considering the needs of visitors as well as residents.

“It’s all about economic vitality,” [Mancos Valley Chamber of Commerce Administrator Marie Chiarizia] said.

Mancos potentially could make broadband service available anywhere in the town if it’s exempted from SB 152, Chiarizia said. Outdoor events such as Mancos Days draw temporary vendors, and broadband access would allow those vendors to be able to take credit and debit cards more quickly, she said.

The Mancos Board of Trustees voted to contribute $4,100 to participate in the feasibility study on March 23rd. 

“To look to the future and become prosperous you have to look at the infrastructure of the town and offer these services...Mancos is a unique community unto itself, but this will help us promote our town better and place us on a competitive edge,” [Chiarizia] said.

AT&T Celebrates, Tennessee Families Go Another Year Without Internet Hope

As I write this, I suspect the "platoon" of lobbyists from AT&T and Comcast in Nashville are waking up with hangovers from celebrations last night after they once again defeated a bill to restore local authority in Tennessee. After a grassroots uprising, we thought the state would finally allow communities to decide for themselves if networks like Chattanooga's famed gigabit EPB would be able to expand.

Color me extremely disappointed - not because AT&T won, but because I fooled myself into thinking this grassroots mobilization might matter.

From the Times Free Press,

On Tuesday at the state Capitol in Nashville, a platoon of lobbyists and executives, including AT&T Tennessee President Joelle Phillips, were present in the House hearing room or watching on a video screen as Brooks presented the bill and the amendment.

...

It failed on the 5-3 [committee] vote with Rep. Marc Gravitt, R-East Ridge, voting for Brooks' amendment and Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, a one-time AT&T executive, voting against it.

Eight people voted on the bill. AT&T and Comcast formed the majority of the 27 lobbyists fighting against the bill according to Karl Bode.

People in Bradley County have either no service or poor access from companies like AT&T - but Chattanooga's EPB is not allowed to expand due to a state law pushed by the cable and telephone companies nearly 20 years ago to prevent competition.

These are people whose children have to go to libraries or fast food restaurants every day to do their homework. These are businesses that can barely compete in the digital age because AT&T doesn't view modern connectivity in the region an investment that would garner a fat return.

But alas, money and corporate influence again ruled the day in Nashville, where the Governor and others have continued to refuse to admit there is any problem worth fixing. This lede from Times Free Press answers the question of why companies like AT&T "donate" so much to political campaigns:

Gov. Bill Haslam says efforts by EPB and other municipal electric services to expand high-speed Internet to rural areas won't fully solve Tennessee's broadband accessibility issues and doesn't fairly treat for-profit servers like AT&T and Comcast.

In the face of this injustice, the Governor's first concern remains with what is fair to AT&T and Comcast, not what is best for the millions of Tennesseeans struggling with no connectivity or last generation slow Internet access.

To cover any charges they are doing nothing, they have announced an official "kick the can down the road strategy." Consider the Facebook post from AT&T executive turned state Legislator Patsy Hazlewood:

The state has invested $250,000 for a comprehensive study of broadband in TN. The report will be presented in June and will do a number of things. It will define broadband--which has a wide variety of definitions by both providers and customers across the state. The report will outline options for deployment and penetration on a statewide basis.

Great - one hopes that as parents drive their children to do homework while parked in front of closed libraries with active Wi-Fi access points that the state will soon decide how to define broadband.

This is why the FCC ruling to restore local Internet choice to communities is so important and oral arguments for the appeal are this week.

What remains to be done is a greater grassroots mobilization to demand that Nashville allow communities to solve their own problems. Republicans regularly critize Democrats for trying to enact a "nanny" state where the government refuses to let people make their own decisions. But when those same Republicans are in power, we see them restricting local governments from solving their own problems locally.

Bradley County and the local governments therein should be free to work with EPB if that is their choice. All this nonsense about fairness to AT&T and studying the definition of broadband in the year 2016 are a direct result of AT&T's power in Nashville and the dependency of elected officials on powerful companies for political donations and favors.

TN and NC vs. FCC: Oral Arguments Scheduled for Thursday, March 17th

This Thursday, March 17th, attorneys for the FCC and the states of Tennessee and North Carolina will present arguments to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on a case that could define parameters for publicly owned Internet networks. The proceedings begin at 9 a.m. eastern. Each side has 15 minutes to present.

As we reported a year ago, the FCC ruled that state barriers in Tennessee and North Carolina limiting expansion of publicly own networks are too restrictive and threaten the U.S. goal of expanding ubiquitous access. The FCC overruled the harmful state laws but soon after, both states filed appeals.

The cases were consolidated in the Sixth Circuit and a number of organizations, including ILSR, offered Amicus briefs. We have collected all the briefs and made them available for you here. As most of our readers will recall, the case focused on Chattanooga and Wilson, two communities that know the many benefits of publicly owned networks.

So, when you raise your glass of green beer on Thursday to celebrate St. Paddy's, send some luck to our friends in Wilson, Chattanooga, and the FCC!

Colorado Bill Aims To Hinder Opt-Out, Restrict Local Authority Even More

When local elected officials in Colorado put the issue before constituents last fall, voters in almost 50 communities chose overwhelmingly to reclaim local telecommunications authority. Colorado's state law that strips away local authority, SB 152, permits opt-out through referendum. Referendums are expensive for local communities, but at least they are a way to reclaim the power to decide their own future. 

That ability to opt out will get more expensive and more burdensome if a new bill becomes law. Even though the state removed local authority with SB 152, this bill demonstrates that the legislature can still find a way to strip away more local control when big corporate providers feel threatened.

Local Leaders Concerned

SB 136, sponsored by Kerry Donovan, was introduced on March 4th under the guise of "modernizing" the dreaded SB 152. The bill is now waiting for a hearing in the Senate State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee. According to the Aspen Daily News, Pitkin County Commissioners are wary of the bill's consequences. So are we. Ninety-two percent of Pitkin County voters approved the opt-out of SB 152 last November, thereby reclaiming authority. The county has already completed a needs assessment and is obtaining bids for telecommunications infrastructure; they don't want this bill to derail their efforts.

Kara Sillbernagel, Pitkin County analyst, shared her interpretation with the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC):

...[A] concern is SB 136 could open the door to potential litigation in the opt-out process.

...

Silbernagel added that, in her opinion, the language complicates the issue away from the simple opt-out solution, and introduces terms which have left governments that opted out “feeling vulnerable.”

“[Concerns are that] it actually seems to be more restrictive for counties moving forward,” she said.

"Modernized" Language = "Modernized" Barriers

Among other changes, the proposed bill requires local governments to give a 60-day notice to private providers if an SB 152 opt-out question will be on the ballot. Local governments are already required to provide notice when a new measure is to be included on a ballot; this creates an additional requirement for measures related to broadband.

The bill also mandates that, prior to the election, a local community must develop and publicize a detailed plan as to what types of services it intends to offer, where the services would be offered, projected revenues, projected expenses, and why the municipality or its partner is seeking to offer those services. If a municipality seeks to work with a private sector partner, the requirement that they release this type of information will make any potential partner think twice. Competitors that have access to such data have an edge before the project has permission to commence.

There also appears to be considerable confusion in the bill's language regarding the term "services." Fiber, wireless, direct, indirect, video, voice? The ambiguity is off-putting for any community and potential partner hoping to offer connectivity where the big corporate providers won't go while also avoiding legal challenges. How can a community create a plan that does not run afoul of the law if the details of the law are clouded in mystery?

This section of the bill will increase the burden it places on local government. It will increase costs to communities early in the process, extend the timetable for proposed projects, and make local governments and their partners vulnerable to litigation from deep-pocketed incumbent providers. A legal challenge can stop a proposed project in its tracks simply by asserting that a business plan is ill-defined.

From the Aspen Daily News artice:

Commissioner Patti Clapper said the bill sounded like blowback from industry due to so many jurisdictions voting to opt-out of SB-152.

“It almost seems like … a way for industry to come in from the back door and nail us the other way around,” she said.

A Simple Solution

The bill attempts to remove barriers that prevent communities from entering into public private partnerships. The only barriers in Colorado are those put in place by SB 152. Rather than toying with unnecessary changes that make the barrier more restrictive, the best option is to repeal SB 152 and let local communities decide for themselves how best to solve their connectivity needs.

Missouri's HB 2078 Advances

Dear Readers: Since I first wrote this story with my attempt to analyze this bill, I have revisited my earlier interpretation. If you read this bill analysis before, you will notice some changes.

It is starting to become an annual pilgrimage to Jefferson City. Each year, House and Senate leaders on the telecom industry dole, introduce the same anti-competition bill.

This year the bill we are watching is HB 2078 in the House, yet another AT&T bill. We briefly introduced you to it in January when we requested you call Republican Representative Lyndall Fraker and the other Members of the House Utility Infrastructure Committee. Fraker is Chair of the Committee, often an indication that the committee will hear the bill.

AT&T donated $20,000 to the House Republican Campaign Committee, reports Ars Technica. Even though the check was deposited on February 15, 2016, Ars learned it was actually donated in September 2015, before session began. Regardless of when the money was donated, it is notable that AT&T contributed a total of $62,500 to political committees in Missouri, a place where the incumbent does not shy away from flexing its lobbying influence.

Last year, HB 437 was introduced and, after opposition from a number of private entities and public sector representatives, stalled in the House. Many of HB 437's anti-competitive characteristics are resurrected this year in HB 2078.

There are many things we don't like about this bill because it forces local governments to hold expensive referendums, dictates how they spend local revenue, and decrees cryptic rules that discourage partnerships with private providers.

"Competitive Services"

The bill would allow a municipality to offer "competitive services" as defined by the bill only if less than 50 percent of addresses in town are not being offered services "by any combination of service providers." We are not the only ones to document the overstatement of coverage of NTIA maps, which rely on self-reporting from the very companies that seek to limit municipal networks.

The bill goes on to provide various definitions of "competitive services," one of which is "communication service," which is an  ambiguous and confusing term that will have the effect of triggering the referendum requirement in the bill. Such an onerous requirement slows down local communities when they are trying to hasten economic development opportunities. 

The bill's backers attempt to put limits on what is "competitive" by preventing innovation from municipal networks. They use the words "substantially similar" to describe the types of services offered - another ambiguous term that can be conveniently reinterpreted later. 

"Exception"...Ya

HB 2078 creates a lip service "exception," as these bills always do, with a bar set so high no municipality could invoke it. We chose to highlight just a few aspects of a worthless section of a bill clearly and carefully drafted to prevent competition for the incumbents.

After a weekend reviewing the language of the bill, I see this as the correct interpretation :  that in order for a municipality to offer services by taking advantage of the exception, they must both double the speeds offered by incumbents and serve half the residences.

The most debilitating factor for any municipality that is subject to this law is that they would have to offer service to at least 50 percent of the addresses in the municipality from the first day. In other words, the community would have to wait until they have deployed a network to at least 50 percent of their community before they could begin providing service. Such a requirement would hobble any municipality that wanted to access revenues from one portion of a buildout to fund later expansions.

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A Word About Dark Fiber

The bill used the broad term "communications service" and "competitive service" which called into question whether or not it applied to dark fiber providers. Recently, Google Fiber announced it will lease dark fiber from Huntsville, Ting leases dark fiber from Westminster and has stated that it seeks similar partnerships elsewhere. There are other communities that have unique arrangements with private entities. HB 2078 inserts Missouri state law into potential partnerships between public and private entities that rest on dark fiber. It requires the same terms and conditions be made available to "all service providers." 

This section interferes with a municipalities ability to forge partnerships with private industry leaders. For example, the agreement between Westminster and Ting might have triggered the negative impacts of this bill because the two agreed on 5 years exclusivity for the provider. 

The Next Step for HB 2078

HB 2078 passed through the House Utility Infrastructure committee 16 - 2 on February 18th and next heads for the Select Committee on Utilities. If it passes there, it will move the the House Floor for approval.

Last year the same measure did not advance because it was a bad bill. Missouri already has restrictions in place but this bill will make it even harder for residents and businesses to ever have access to more choices and the better service that come with competition. The legislation is written and backed by elected officials who hold the distinction of being darlings of AT&T, CenturyLink, and Comcast. Until we put this issue to rest permanently by allowing local authority in Missouri, the pilgrimage to Jefferson City will get tougher every year.

Fact Sheet On Rural Connectivity In North Carolina

The Coalition for Local Internet Choice North Carolina chapter (CLIC-NC) and the Community Broadband Networks Team here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) have teamed up to create a new fact sheet: Fast, Affordable, Modern Broadband: Critical for Rural North Carolina.

This fact sheet emphasizes the deepening divide between urban and rural connectivity. The fact sheet can help explain why people who live in the country need services better than DSL or dial-up. This tool helps visualize the bleak situation in rural North Carolina and offers links to resources.

Rural North Carolina is one of the most beautiful places in the country but also one of the most poorly served by big Internet access providers. The gap between urban and rural connectivity is growing wider as large corporate providers choose to concentrate their investments on a small number of urban areas, even though 80 percent of North Carolina's counties are rural.

To add insult to injury, North Carolina is one of the remaining states with barriers on the books that effectively prohibit local communities from making decisioins about fiber infrastructure investment. CLIC-NC and ILSR encourage you to use the fact sheet to help others understand the critical need for local authority.

Download it here, share it, pass it on.

Learn more about the situation in rural North Carolina from Catharine Rice, who spoke with Chris in episode 184 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Local Communities Appeal to State Leaders: Change State Anti-Muni Law

Some of us remember it - not so fondly - as a discarded relic of an early era of the Internet. But it’s not a relic for people in some parts of rural Tennessee: the awful sound of a dial-up modem.

There are approximately 28,000 people living in the county and as Marion County Mayor David Jackson tells it, he knows residents with no Internet access at all. Some of Marion County residents with nothing better than dial-up can actually look across the Tennessee River and see buildings and houses served by Chattanooga's EPB’s gigabit Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network.

Given this stark contrast, it’s no wonder the push is intensifying for more access to publicly owned Internet networks in Tennessee.

Marion County Wants Local Authority

Elected officials from the Marion County Commission and the town of Kimball are the latest communities to vote on resolutions asking state leaders to change Tennessee’s state anti-muni law. The legal barrier prevents existing municipal utilities from expanding their fiber network footprints to provide telecommunications services to neighboring communities. 

In fact, city leaders in every Marion county municipality have plans to vote on their own resolutions asking the same thing: give us the local authority to decide for ourselves.

While the U.S. Court of Appeals considers whether or not to reverse the FCC decision to roll back the state barrier, communities are calling on the legislature to solve the problem by restoring local authority.

As Communities Succeed, the Municipal Fiber Movement Grows

These communities hope that changing the law will enable Chattanooga to extend its much celebrated EPB network to serve the people of Kimball and other communities in Marion County. The efforts come in the wake of similar requests out of Bradley County.

"There's a movement, pretty well statewide now, to expand broadband and fiber optic networks throughout rural areas of the state," Marion County Attorney Billy Gouger said. "In order to do that, there has to be a change in the state law."

The Marion County officials are forwarding their resolutions to Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, and Marion County’s state delegates. While state leaders have not signaled an intent to change the law and some county officials tried unsuccessfully to get the law changed in 2014, Marion County Attorney Billy Gouger believes things are different now: 

“‘They're going to try it again,’ he said. ‘There are some other concessions being made that will [give it] a better chance of passing this time.’”


Sale of OptiNet: BVU Caught Between Virginia's Rock And A Hard Place

For more than a decade, the people of Bristol, Virginia have enjoyed what most of us can only dream about - fast affordable, reliable, connectivity.  In recent days, we learned that Bristol Virginia Utilities Authority (BVU) has entered into a deal to sell its OptiNet triple-play fiber network to a private provider. The deal is contingent on approval by several entities.

As we dig deeper into the situation, we understand that troubles in southwestern Virginia and Bristol have led to this decision. Nevertheless, we urge the Bristol community to weigh the long-term consequences before they sacrifice OptiNet. Once you give up control, you won’t get it back.

"...A Few Bad Apples..."

If the people of Bristol surrender this valuable public asset to the private market, they run the risk of undoing 15 years of great work. None of this is a commentary on the private provider, Sunset Digital Communications, which may be a wonderful company. The problem is that Sunset will be making the decisions in the future, not the community. 

OptiNet has helped the community retain and create jobs, attracting and retaining more than 1,220 well-paying positions from Northrup Grumman, CGI, DirecTV, and Alpha Natural Resources. Businesses have cut Internet access and telecommunications costs. Officials estimate around $50 million in new private investment and $36 million in new annual payroll have come to the community since the development of OptiNet. The network allowed public schools to drastically reduce telecommunications expenses and introduce gigabit capacity long before such speeds were the goal among educators.

Schools and local government saved approximately $1 million from 2003 - 2008. Subscribers have saved considerably as well, which explains OptiNet's high take rate of over 70 percent. Incumbent telephone provider Sprint (now CenturyLink) charged phone rates 25 percent higher than OptiNet in 2003. The benefits are too numerous to mention in one short story.

However, BVU is emerging from a dark period marked by corrupt management. This sad reality actually makes its considerable achievements all the more remarkable. Last summer, several officials from BVU's OptiNet utility were indicted and found guilty of a number of federal charges including falsifying invoices, taking kickbacks, and misusing funds all for personal gain. Four people were fined and sentenced to prison. One other official is still being tried for her involvement in misuse of funds and tax offenses.

When this small number of officials violated the trust in Bristol that accompanies a locally managed utility, their actions negatively impacted the entire community. The actions of a few bad apples may have put the entire barrel at risk.

An Unsolicited Offer

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A few months later, Sunset Digital Communications approached BVU with an offer to purchase OptiNet. Sunset had its financing in place prior to making the offer.

Sunset worked with the LENOWISCO Planning District Commission on its 2001 Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) project in Lee and Wise Counties in southern Virginia and Tennessee.

The company, based in Duffield, Virginia, serves 80,0000 residents and businesses. They also provide services to anchor institutions, and other Internet service providers. Sunset wants to use the OptiNet infrastructure to start an expansion into rural areas. In a recent Herald Courier article, Sunset President and CEO Paul Elswick described the relationship between OptiNet and Sunset as "friendly competitors."

Virginia Doesn’t Care About Rural People

BVU has been effectively prevented from expanding into nearby rural communities by Virginia law, which limits which business models BVU can use despite an utter lack of interest from existing providers improving their services in that region. 

BVU Authority Board Chair Jim Clifton told WCYB:

"We have peaked in our ability to compete, and again, if we can't get grants, and even with the grants, we can only go into certain areas. We can only go into a 75 mile radius of our footprint," Clifton said. He said as a public utility, they have reached the peak for providing those types of services.

Bristol's neighbors want OptiNet because of the great things it has accomplished for Bristol but state legislators will not allow the city to share the wealth. The pressure to expand through privatization is testament to OptiNet's success in a harsh, anti-muni environment.

In Steps Richmond

Rather than allowing BVU to bring its high capacity connections to those who desperately want it, legislators are using the actions of a few corrupt officials to further harm one of the few sources of economic growth in southwest Virginia.

While Sunset was pursuing BVU, State Senator Bill Carrico (R-Galax) was preparing a bill the Bristol Herald Courier described as a "wrecking ball for a job better suited to a hammer." The bill, a knee jerk reaction to the federal indictments, would reduce the size of the BVU authority and effectively transfer broad decision-making to state leadership by appointment. The editorial board described it as a way for the state to revoke local authority from Bristol for more than just OptiNet. From the Herald:

At the same time, Carrico wants to reduce to just two board members the representation from Bristol, Virginia, where the customer base represents 46 percent of OptiNet, 86 percent of wastewater, 98 percent of water, and 53 percent of electricity service business. 

We believe stronger oversight is required — and new blood on the board is essential — but not necessarily appointed from the governor’s office.

The City Council also opposed the bill but managed to get an amendment that allowed more Bristol representation on any new Board. Those members would only vote on water and sewer issures. SB 329 has passed through the Committee on Local Governments and now awaits a vote by the full body. It is not clear what will become of the bill if the sale of OptiNet is finalized.

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A Tempting Offer But At What Price?

Sunset has offered $50 million to purchase OptiNet, which now carries approximately $24.4 million in long-term debt, reports the Herald Courier. A portion of that includes interdepartmental loans from the electric division to OptiNet. The electric system, water and sewer systems carry about $20.9 million combined, the bulk of which belongs to the electric system. BVU CEO Dan Bowman told the Herald Courier that the sale of OptiNet "would enable BVU to pay off all its $48 million in long-term indebtedness in all four divisions." There is some debate about whether or not this is possible, according to the agreement between the city and the BVU Authority.

The idea of becoming debt free is intrinsically appealing, but at what cost? BVU generates the necessary revenues to service its debt. Should Sunset decide to sell to one of the big corporate providers like Comcast, subscribers will be subject to the same price hikes and sub-par customer service like the rest of us. The purchase agreement has not been made public yet, but unless Sunset agrees to retain ownership or BVU is allowed a right of first refusal if Sunset decides to sell OptiNet, the risk is real.

Moving Along

On Tuesday, the Bristol City Council quickly approved a 2009 agreement between the city and BVU to clean up loose ends so the purchase can move forward. The agreement ensures that after debts are paid, half of all proceeds from a sale of OptiNet will go to the city. The City Council seems poised to approve the purchase, which must also be approved by the Cumberland Plateau Company (CPC), U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration, National Telecom and Information Administration and Virginia Tobacco Commission. 

CPC is part of the Cumberland Plateau Planning District Commission, an entity established by the state legislature to improve economic development. CPC has the right of first refusal to purchase OptiNet because it was a partner in its deployment and its infrastructure is located in the CPC service area. If CPC and the other entities approve the transaction, the sale is expected to be finalized in May or June.

Rocks Carefully Placed For Maximum Effect

The deal is not over but momentum is moving toward the sale. No one can deny that BVU is under intense amount of pressure from several fronts. Virginia legislated a hostile environment that pushed OptiNet to privatize if it wanted to continue expanding to meet the needs of neighbors. The only interests served by this policy have been the big cable and telephone companies that maintain lobbyists in Richmond so they can pay less attention to the rest of the state.

When legislators are too cozy with big corporate Internet access providers, the only choice for expansion may be privatization. If the Virginia State Legislators were considering their constituents first, they would do what it takes to grow more networks like OptiNet. In other words, remove all barriers in the form of onerous requirements that limit expansion and discourage public investment in Internet networks.

The actions of a few corrupt BVU officials have played right into the hands of those that want to limit local Internet choice.