When Delegate Kathy Byron introduced HB 2108, cheekily titled the “Broadband Deployment Act,” she might have not have expected so much attention from local and national reporters. Local media outlets, especially in areas directly threatened by the bill, are alerting constituents about threats to improve local connectivity. National news is also covering the story, describing how Virginia communities that can't get high-quality connectivity from national providers could fall victim to big cable and DSL lobbyists if HB 2108 passes. Constituents are taking notice, but the legislative session is just getting started in Virginia.
Local Media Reaching Local Constituents
The Roanoke Valley is especially vulnerable to the perils of HB 2108. After a contentious process, the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority (RVBA) completed an open access fiber-optic network to meet the needs of local businesses, schools and libraries, and other facilities. Byron’s bill would make it practically impossible for the RVBA to expand to nearby counties by preventing them from obtaining high-quality connectivity and the benefits that accompany it. Without the ability to serve more customers, the RVBA faces a tenuous future. Smith told WSLS TV 10:
“It hurts the area. It hurts us as the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority, but more importantly it hurts across the Commonwealth of Virginia, its ability to be able to serve and use technology to serve economic development,” said Frank Smith.
The Roanoke Times quickly reported on the bill when Byron introduced it, noting that it would stifle the RVBA’s attempts to encourage competition, an economic development driver:
“It may serve the incumbent [providers] to reduce competition, but it does not serve citizens, it does not create jobs,” [Roanoke City Manager Chris] Morrill said. “It doesn’t do all the things we’re working toward here.”
Morrell told WDBJ Channel 7:
"We addressed this broadband issue because the business community came to us and said, 'Our speeds are too slow. It's too expensive. It's not where we need it. And so we need the region to step up.' So we did, and invested in it and now this new bill would really tie our hands completely."
After the Times reported on deep concerns about the bill emanating from the Franklin County Board of Supervisors, constituents’ ears perked up. Franklin County has been exploring options to improve Internet access in rural areas:
County Administrator Brent Robertson called the bill “very disturbing,” and said it could undermine the county’s work.
Chuck Kirby, chief operations analyst, highlighted a few specific concerns for the county, including limitations on how any broadband efforts undertaken by the county could be funded and the bill’s low threshold for satisfactory connection of 10 megabits per second. Kirby said some county residents already have access to a 10 mbps connection, but still feel it’s too slow.
When Boone District Supervisor Ronnie Thompson asked about a solution, Thomas had a simple answer: “The real solution is to abolish this bill.”
The Times Editorial Board labeled it “The most dangerous bill now pending before the General Assembly,” and offered this analogy:
If we had only privately-built highways, but really needed an interstate to spur economic growth, and private companies couldn’t or wouldn’t build it because they didn’t think they could make enough money on it, wouldn’t we opt for the government-built interstate? Sure we would, because it would be good for jobs overall. Same thing here.
Apparently, constituents called Byron’s office to express their displeasure. Within a few days, the Times reported that Byron had complained on the House Floor that her constituents were calling in opposition to HB 2108. Roanoke City Councilman Ray Ferris said, “If you read House Bill 2108, you cannot come away with any other conclusion other than it is capital corporate cronyism at its best.”
The Times gave her equal opportunity to present her arguments, but all she could muster was the usual debunked falsities and a complaint about press impartiality.
A Wider Lens
National outlets are also following the HB 2108 story. Each year, big cable and DSL lobbyists in state legislatures try to get anti-competitive bills pushed through. Sources like DSL Reports, Ars Techinca, and Engadget are becoming old hats at reporting on bills like HB 2108. Virginia has not been a target in recent years, however, so everything old is new again.
For years we've noted how incumbent ISP lobbyists quite literally pay state politicians to pass laws protecting them from competition. Most often these laws attempt to prevent towns and cities from building their own broadband networks, or partnering with a private ISP partner (like Ting or Google Fiber). The laws themselves are pure protectionism, with the only benefactor being the bottom line of large, incumbent ISPs.
Now that the FCC can't prevent states from blocking municipal broadband, telecom-backed politicians are doing their best to shut down these government-run networks.
Multichannel News was one of the stories that quoted Christopher:
"These communities are already disadvantaged because they lack access to high-quality, affordable Internet service. This legislation is designed to further burden them," said Christopher Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in a statement. "This bills seeks to further solidify the monopoly Virginia's ISPs enjoy at the expense of Virginians."
CivSource announced the bill with a succinct bit of background:
The idea of municipal broadband has been under attack since the first high-profile city-backed network launched in Chattanooga, Tennessee a few years ago. Since then, private companies have been on the attack, placing bills throughout state legislatures that would limit municipal ability to get local networks approved and deployed. On Friday, Republican lawmaker Kathy Byron introduced one such bill in Virginia.
Virginia lawmakers are considering a bill called the "Virginia Broadband Deployment Act," but instead of resulting in more broadband deployment, the legislation would make it more difficult for municipalities to offer Internet service.
Stop the Cap’s Phil Dampier takes a comprehensive look at the bill and the Legislator behind it:
What is one of the most effective ways to stop competition in its tracks before it can even get off the ground? Reward a state legislator with generous campaign contributions who introduces a bill banning your would-be competitor and get back to business as usual.
Virginia’s motto is "Sic semper tyrannis." Translation: Thus always to tyrants. Byron may not have expected so much media coverage, but she probably didn't expect to get schooled on the state motto either. Hopefully, HB 2108 will continue to garner local and national media interest and Virginians will be even more engaged in their state democratic process.