On February 13th, the Virginia Senate Labor and Commerce Committee held a hearing on HB 2108, previously called the "Virginia Broadband Deployment Act" and now named the "Virginia Wireless Services Authority Act." Delegate Kathy Byron offered an amendment to the bill, it was accepted, and the bill passed. It is now headed for the full Senate where it may or may not be put on the calendar for a vote.
FOIA Language Removed
The bill came to the Senate after a revised version of the original bill passed in the House 72 - 24. The committee amendment removed a FOIA Exemption, which was the last piece of language remaining that local groups strongly opposed. In a press release, President and CEO of Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority said:
“With the removal the FOIA Exemption clause this afternoon, HB 2108 no longer poses a threat to local and municipal broadband authorities. Instead it merely reasserts the very same laws and procedures in the Code of Virginia to which we all already operate and gladly adhere and abide,”
Moving Ahead With Caution
With the exception of the Committee Chair, Sen. Frank Wagner, the vote to pass as amended was unanimous; there was one abstention. Wagner, who is running for Governor, announced his opposition to the original bill at a press conference in January. While advocates of publicly owned Internet infrastructure remain cautiously optimistic, it’s important to remember that the process is not over. The bill could still be amended in a manner that impedes local investment in better connectivity.
Working Despite State Obstruction
Even though State Legislators introduce bills that discourage better rural connectivity, local Virginia communities are doing their best to serve themselves. They realize that waiting is too risky and that the longer they have horrible connectivity, the farther behind they fall.
We reported earlier in the legislative session that we knew of ten communities that had passed resolutions to oppose HB 2108. Nelson County, Louisa County, and Virginia Beach are a few of the local communities that have publicly owned infrastructure and are using it for residential and/or better business connectivity. About a dozen Virginia communities, most of them rural, have established or on the verge of creating broadband initiatives, task forces, or authorities as a way to pursue better local connectivity.
HB 2108 especially perturbed the city of Alexandria, who feels Richmond often treats them poorly. The city has been looking for a way to ramp up competition to get better services from incumbent Comcast and open up the market to new entrants. They've launched an initiative to find a private sector partner and, even after the first bill revision, which gutted much of the restrictive language, Vice Mayor Justin Wilson criticized HB 2108:
“I don’t know what the problem is 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.”
There may be more communities that we’re unaware of that have launched initiatives, but these places know their efforts at improving broadband will be hampered by additional state barriers so they remain vigilant with an eye on Richmond.
Time To Change Course
On the current trajectory, state Legislators are spending time, money, and energy advancing bills that hamper local communities’ efforts to improve economic development, save public dollars, and improve quality of life. HB 2108 and similar bills serve no purpose other than to preserve the anti-competitive environment sought by Virginia’s big incumbent telephone companies. Time to change course: tell the telecommunications companies to keep their campaign contributions and start listening to constituents.