The Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority (RVBA) network is live in Virginia, and the state’s cable-telco lobby is not happy. Despite the Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association (VCTA) attempts to turn people against the network, local leaders in Roanoke County decided to help fund further expansion.
As part of their $183 million budget, the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors included $3.4 million to bring the network into the county, with economic development driving the vote. From the Roanoke Times coverage of the vote:
“There is so much that is great that is going on in Roanoke County,” [Supervisor Joe McNamara] said. “Whether it’s what we’re doing for community development with our strategic planning, what we’re doing from an economic development standpoint, what we’ve done with allocating money toward storm water management. I really see broadband as just one area of the budget.”
How Did This Come About?
The network had started out as a joint project among the cities of Salem and Roanoke and the counties of Botetourt and Roanoke. Both counties dropped from the project, leaving the cities to do it themselves. Now with the network live, Roanoke County is reconsidering its previous hesitation.
In late April 2016, the RVBA celebrated the official lighting of the 47-mile fiber network. Fittingly, the first customer is the Blue Ridge PBS station: the local publicly-owned network is serving the connectivity needs of local public television. The overall goal, however, is economic development, and the RVBA intends to sign up 60 small and large customers in the next year and a half. In six years, they expect the network to break even and be self-sustaining.
That’s concerning to the state’s cable-telco lobby. VCTA, whose top donors are Comcast and Cox, hired a team of telemarketers to present a simple, yet biased, survey to county residents. The VCTA hired a telemarketing firm for a push poll to sway county residents, and the Roanoke Times Editorial Board is pushing for the real questions.
The Roanoke Times Editorial Board, however, called out the validity of the push poll and shared some of the facts and the benefits of the new network. Just check out some of the leading questions included in the poll as reproduced in the Roanoke Times:
“A recent report by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service found that business leaders universally cite inadequate airline service as the most serious problem faced by the region; noting that it has a major impact on recruiting and retaining professionals and businesses, with that in mind, which of the following you prefer be done by the Roanoke County government for the currently proposed funding of $3.4 million dollars --- invest in efforts to improve the region’s inadequate airline service or create a redundant broadband network?”
This push poll is trying to sway public opinion against expanding the network by calling it “redundant” or "repetitive," ignoring the fact that redundancy is important in infrastructure. Airline service is a major concern, but affordable high-speed Internet access is also good for economic development. Clearly, this question makes the incorrect assumption that people answering the poll are too unsophisticated to make the connection between connectivity and the needs of businesses.
Broadband vs. Ice Cream
The Roanoke Times has provided searing responses to the anti-community network arguments. Their editorial piece from a few weeks ago detailed how a community-owned network is different than a publicly-owned ice-cream shop. Apparently, one of the Roanoke County Supervisors had made such an argument. (We couldn’t make this stuff up if we tried.)
The fight that’s going down in Roanoke includes such epic quotes as this one from the Roanoke Times Editorial piece about ice cream:
“Municipal broadband may or may not make sense for a particular community, but the idea is not exactly one being pushed by beret-capped socialists quoting ‘Das Kapital.’ On the contrary, it’s cold-eyed disciples of Adam Smith — specifically business leaders, the captains of the private sector — who are usually the most enthusiastic champions.”
Weighing Options? Consider the Questions
The Roanoke Times Editorial Board's latest piece urged the supervisors to consider the real questions:
“The city obviously felt the best way to be economically competitive was through the broadband authority and its open-access network; does the county see a way to achieve the same — or better — results through a purely private-sector approach?”
This is what localities need to be asking themselves as they see their neighbors form community networks. What are the paths to affordable high-speed Internet access? And what makes the most sense for our communities?
Addendum: The cable companies like to claim that municipal fiber networks are "redundant" but they actually aren't... unless you believe an 18 wheeler truck is redundant of a bicycle or a container ship is redundant of a cabin cruiser. An all-fiber network is next-generation infrastructure that aims to provide a real choice in communities monopolized by last-generation cable technology. But don't take my word for, listen to Slick Sam...