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Finance Leader Turns To RVBA

Now that the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority (RVBA) has its fiber-optic network offering services to local businesses, smart companies that want fast, affordable, reliable connectivity are signing up. The latest is finance company, Meridium, which was recently acquired by GE Digital.

We recently interviewed CEO and President of the RVBA, Frank Smith, who described what it’s like to be “the new kid on the block.” The RVBA has faced some opposition and dealt with highs and lows during deployment, but as news of the network spreads, we expect to see more press releases like this coming from the Roanoke Valley:

Meridium, Inc., the global leader in asset performance management (APM) software and services, announced today that they will rely on the Roanoke Valley's new Municipal Broadband Network to power the Internet and data transport service for their headquarters in downtown Roanoke. This announcement follows the 100% acquisition of Meridium by GE Digital announced September 14th.

"Meridium is deeply invested in this community, and we are committed to supporting the efforts of our local government to continue to invest in the technology infrastructure of the region," President and CEO Bonz Hart said. "The RVBA's open-access, carrier-grade network will help us keep up with the speed of industry and remain cost competitive as we serve clients all around the globe."

Meridium anticipates significant benefits as they switch from their incumbent internet service provider to the RVBA network.

"Faster speeds, lower costs, better customer service, greater security... what is not to like? We're really excited about what the RVBA is doing for our region and proud to sign on as an early customer," CTO Eddie Amos said.  "We have done well in the region with what has existed prior, but we need higher-end technology. High-speed fiber-to-the-door connectivity is critical to our continued global success."

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 221

This is episode 221 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. President and CEO of the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority joins the show to discuss the award-winning open access fiber-optic project. Listen to this episode here.

Frank Smith: We need to be an ingredient in what people need to be able to do what they want to accomplish.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 221 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute of Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Roanoke Valley, Virginia, has had some ups and downs as they planned and deployed an open access fiber-optic network, but they're now on course. This year they began providing a range of services for Internet service providers and local businesses. They're also bringing better connectivity to public facilities and community anchor institutions. Frank Smith, president and CEO of the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority, talks with Chris this week. In addition to explaining what the authority is, and describing its function, Frank explains the situation in the Roanoke Valley, which led to the decision to invest in the network. Frank provides information about how the authority is working to collaborate with different partners, and he also reflects on challenges and shares plans for the future. Learn more details at Now, here are Chris and Frank Smith, president and CEO of the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. Today I'm speaking with Frank Smith, the president and CEO of Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority, in Virginia. Welcome to the show.

Frank Smith: Thank you very much Christopher. It's a pleasure to be here.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, I'm excited to talk to you because I remember looking into this project in years back and seeing some fits and starts and hoping that someone would pull it all together. Over the course of this conversation, I think we'll discuss that. Let's just start off and let people know what is going on in Roanoke Valley and even more importantly, where and what is it.

Frank Smith: The Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority, just to give you kind of a background, as far as where we are geographically, we're approximately three hours due north of Charlotte, North Carolina, and approximately three and a half hours southwest of the Washington DC metro area. Not too far down the road, forty minutes is Virginia Tech. When we go out about a thirty mile radius, we probably pick up a population between three hundred and fifty and four hundred thousand people. We have various industries that are here, both on the medical side, the education side, technology, all sorts of other things. We're home of Advanced Auto Parts and we've got the Virginia Tech Biomedical Institute, and the medical school they've built here in the Roanoke Valley. We have a lot of things going on. The Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority actually was created approximately, I think it's about three or four years ago by a group of -- It was driven by citizens who saw a need to provide greater access and more competition and a few things within the broadband network provisioning side of things. The interesting thing for us is that they called us a doughnut hole. I actually like doughnuts and probably too much, but liked the fact of the analogy of the doughnut holes because that I can understand pretty easily.

Christopher Mitchell: Also doughnut holes are much more healthy than entire doughnuts.

Frank Smith: Yes, that's a great rationalization. I like you already. This is good. Just don't tell my wife, if that's all right. Krispy Kreme has a store here and I have to try to stay away. The one thing is about the doughnut hole is that we are not big enough to be what we'd considered an NFL city, to get a large investment to come in there, from a provisioning or from a network planning standpoint. We have some good existing providers that are here, but we're not getting the same level of investment, which leads to additional competition here because we're not of that size. At the same time, we're too large to get a lot of the federal funding and other state and local funding. We have urban areas, we have suburban, we do have rural but for example, when we get Tobacco Commission money or other types of things, which would be part of the Commonwealth of Virginia, we're too big.

Christopher Mitchell: I sometimes simplify that in terms of saying that you're basically big enough to have some good cable, decent cable systems, but you're not good enough to really expect that there will be a better option beyond that. You're in a challenge in that because you already have decent service. No one wants to fund you to get better service, whereas places that have practically no service, they do tend to get some source of help.

Frank Smith: We've got a fairly unique situation and I think that's where the business community specifically drove this. It didn't come out of the government side first. The government side became a partner with the key leaders within the government community driving this. The one that we talked about is the importance for us to recognize that there was a requirement for an open access network. An open access network is not a sole-source provider. It allows other people to ride on that network, so we wanted to encourage competition, but also we wanted to encourage companies to be able to come in here and provide different types of services, and also work with existing providers too. We look at it a couple of ways. We look at partnering with the existing providers that are here, providing additional backbone for them to use, but also for us to provide services as required. We look at three verticals: government, education and business. Our goal is not residential broadband. That's not our play right now. Then, in addition to that, we're looking at different ways to partner. For example, we've already been approached by companies who are local in the area -- wireless Internet service providers who are interested in providing the last mile. We've had land line Internet service providers looking to use the physical infrastructure to then build out to communities, so they could in that case, take a look at providing residential service. Now we'd be the enabler if they wanted to use our middle mile. Then we also have groups that have taken and looked specifically at what we've done, we've formed a group down here, created a chapter what they call the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association. This is a huge group. It's been around for seventy years. The point is, we've got a growing defense industry here, both figuratively and literally above and below the radar. What we're trying to do there is saying, look, we've got a great infrastructure, we're building it out, and also the equipment we're using -- our particular network is all certified, the switches and the routers, they're all certified under Defense Department process called, not getting too far in the weeds, but called JITC, Joint Interoperability Test Command. They come in and take a look at vulnerabilities. We made sure that was a table stakes requirement for the vendors that we put into the network. The key thing is that we're close enough but far enough away from some of the key centers such as Charlotte and DC. We've seen success right down the road, several hours from us where people have been able to put in disaster recovery sites, or data centers in service of both state and federal players like the US House of Representatives. The key thing is there are different things that we look at. We have groups here that need to be aware of who we are, they need to be aware of each other. At the end of the day, our purpose, our primary purpose is economic development.

Christopher Mitchell: A lot of our listeners, I think, are more familiar with municipalities doing these sorts of things. You're actually an authority. What does that mean?

Frank Smith: We were able to create this under the Wireless Broadband Act. I think it was 1999 which was passed by the state legislature. The Authority, we are technically called the Political Sub-Division of the Commonwealth of Virginia. What that allows us to do is we brought together four municipalities, the county of Roanoke, the city of Roanoke, Botetourt County, and then the city of Salem. Three of those are financially participating right now. A fourth I think will be coming down the road as they take a look at how they want to expand into their particular area. We called it an authority, we've done something very similar. It's actually an organizational construct that's authorized within the Commonwealth of Virginia. For example, we have a local water authority, and that's similar to the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority. We are subject to the procurement integrity rules of the Commonwealth of Virginia, so obviously we have fully transparent books. Everything is -- We have primary, secondary, judiciary checks for how we spend and account for things. Those are all subject to Freedom of Information Act, so everything is clear and open. We are subject to oversight.

Christopher Mitchell: Let's talk a little bit about your plan. You're very enthusiastic about open access. What is currently happening in terms of where you're able to build out and target and that sort of thing?

Frank Smith: There are a couple of things going. We've been in production for, I want to say full-on production live for four months. I've been with the authority for almost fourteen months. During that time, we took it from bidding out and selecting the first (for the first phase of the network) the first fifty miles, a hundred and forty four strands of CommScope microfiber. Then we put in a four channel conduit and we're using one of the four paths. The key on that is that we can lease that out, we can expand our existing fiber, we can do all sorts of things, so there's capacity that's build in. That means that other folks can come in and use both our fiber and our conduit. We've also, under the first initial hundred forty four strands of fiber, we've taken part of that and just said okay 25 percent of that or approximately 34 strands will be used for dark fiber. For those who are not familiar with dark fiber, it's the unlit glass or unlighted glass that we've had several carriers approach us and are taking a look at leasing dark fiber from us, so they can get to different points in the network, serve different customers without having to build additional infrastructure. That is good on a couple of things. First it's good for us because it's a revenue stream and we have an operating budget, and we have a pro forma, which is basically our business plan that we need to stick to. We need to be breaking even from an operating expense standpoint (Opex) within a five point nine years. That started in May of 2016, so that clock is ticking. It helps us generate revenue, but also allows other folks to use facilities without having to come in and build. That goes for both the carriers that are here and also carriers that want to come in or entrepreneurial carriers or start ups that want to use our facilities. That's one, that's the dark fiber. We've got 25 percent allocated for that. The second thing we have, specifically is what we call transport services. Let's imagine that you got the dark fiber, or the dumb glass. You've got to be able to connect that, you got to put electronics on it because it takes lasers to send the light that transmit the data. Let's say you've got two or three locations in the area, and you need to get from point A to point B to point C and you're not interested in Internet traffic or passing packets out the area down the backbone of the Internet, but you need transport. You might have data center facilities or things like that, or you want to be able to run other applications. You could strictly get transport from us or take a combination of different things. That's where we would use our electronics to light up the glass and allow dark fiber and allow you to pass traffic. The third option is really taking a transport, or the stuff that's illuminated with our lasers or switching equipment, the optical transport equipment what they call it. Then taking it and taking it then taking it up to what they call a Layer 3 service, or being able to take it out onto the Internet, get Internet service. We have redundant. We've build in disaster recovery, redundant paths, diverse routing. These are all table stakes. If you're not familiar with them, these are things that when you build a network, they talk about carrier grade. They have things like, you hear the words NEBC=S, network equipment building compliant. You look at a network, you've got to have redundancy, you got to have ability to restore quickly because otherwise you're out service can cause all sorts of cascading failures in the network, and the third is resiliency. We've got routes going up north, and we've got routes going south. We recently had a storm here, not in the area, that hit one of the surrounding states which took out a lot of service, a lot of backhaul service and poles, and things like that. We were not affected, which was good. We were able to maintain our service. We didn't have an outage, and that's because we had redundancy. Now fortunately both our paths were not affected, but if one is, it automatically switches to the other. The key thing is that for a carrier, for somebody who wants to come on our network, we have to have those standards. Those standards have to be met because otherwise we're not carrier grade, we're sub-standard. That's one of the things that we built into. Open access really has a lot of facets to it. The key thing is that everybody can ride on it and use it, which then generates interest, shows businesses what they can be doing. They can use other folks to supply that service to them, they can be providers for themselves. You've got more choice. I think from a consumer standpoint, regardless of what market you're in, and the markets that we address are business, government and education.

Christopher Mitchell: If I'm a provider and I'm trying to figure out how to get from point A to point B, about how many locations do you have where I could hop on and hop off?

Frank Smith: It depends on where they want to connect. There are many places. There are places where they could splice into us, into our network, depending on where the equipment is and where they want to connect. There are things called handholes, and if you're walking along the street and you see a box that's level with the pavement, you'll see, for us, it'll say RVBA Fiber, Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority Fiber. Those are places where we have connection points, in some cases. We have over three hundred of those. That's places where the fiber's connecting and people can also be able to splice in if we need to connect customers or other locations. The other way is we do, called colocation facilities, co-locates. We have five optical switches, or main switching centers. We have one that's called the, it's a colocation for Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities or MBC.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes, we've had them on the show before actually. Tad Deriso.

Frank Smith: We work with them. They're a great partner. Specifically we co-locate in one of their facilities. We actually hand off to them, they hand off back to us. Then in addition to that, we also have other places, there's what they call the higher education center, a beautiful building. They re-purposed that building to be the higher education center. I think it's the Roanoke Higher Education Center, if I get that correct. Multiple universities in there are teaching, but they do that as a remote teaching site. In addition to that, we have a great facility which is a used as a POP, point of presence, or switching center, which is hardened. We put switching equipment in there, that's another place they can connect, and some other carriers come in there already. Then in addition to that, we actually manufactured a telecommunications hut. You sometimes see these, they're about maybe twelve by sixteen, about eight feet tall. We put those in, and there's a place where folks can connect in there, if they want to co-locate. Then there are two others, at the Salem Data Center. Salem is one of the municipalities. They were actually in their data center and that's a place where we can cross-connect to other carriers who want to use our facilities and we can cross-connect to the facilities from other carriers, if we need to get at them. We've done that. The one that we, I think is probably the crown jewel, and this is where it gets interesting from a community stand point is Blue Ridge PBS, and Blue Ridge PBS is public broadcasting, I think it's public broadcasting service or system. Blue Ridge PBS, and their facility was built in the '60's. They are a great local asset. Nobody can be against Elmo or Big Bird, so I look at it that way. They've been great. We've been working with James Baum and he is the present CEO of Blue Ridge public television. We've been working with Will Anderson, who's their vice-president over there. I think he's actually technically the COO. Then Dan Ullmer, who's their Director of Network Engineering. These guys have been tremendous. We have put one of our main switching centers there, but we're also developing a colocation/data facility there because their television operation center is a hardened facility, raised floor. Basically it's a computer room. They've got back-up, huge back-up Caterpillar diesel generator, and all these great things. They are consolidating their equipment. Their equipment has gotten smaller and smaller so that's freed up a lot of space. We have worked with them and we've been able to put a series of Great Lakes cabinets in there and one of our switches in there. In addition to that we have room to expand, so we're talking to several providers right now. We want to co-locate there and be able to cross-connect into our system. That's great because it's a revenue stream for Blue Ridge PBS because they own the facility, we’re leasing parts, so they can rent and gain a new revenue stream to help them in their budget. The other part of that is we're selling capacity. It's a win-win. We've got a great partnership, and they're an integral part of the community. The other thing which is good about this too we think, how we play, it's just not about technology, but it's how you're going to impact the people in your community that you live with, and that you want to support. Blue Ridge PBS is a good example of that. Right down the road is Virginia Western Community College which is part of the Virginia Community College system. One of the things for us, they've connected into our network, and they're using a series of different things to be able to take advantage of it, so there are potential things down the road. We're a facilitator. We're providing an open access network to stimulate growth and economic development which translates into we need to be an ingredient in what people need to be able to do what they want to accomplish. That's our goal. We're there to serve. This goes back to Virginia Western. They have a program, on mechatronics, which I guess is more how things work in a system as far as assembly, manufacturing. Due to fact that they were able to do this and have this ability, that became a key ingredient in attracting an overseas Italian maker of, I think a battery or transmission systems for electric cars, hybrid cars. One thing leads to the other, so we want to make sure that we're providing or enabling different groups to support their missions, execute their missions by providing telecommunication services in an open environment which stimulates growth, stimulates creativity and more important for me, is innovation because that makes a difference in the community.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that I love hearing from people is this idea of the open access, of building a network that's open to many people and encouraging innovation, so I certainly salute you for that. We don't always find that the existing providers are so excited about dealing with the competition of the providers that you may well facilitate coming into town. Although I'm sure that you, as you've said, you're network is open to the incumbents. They just tend not to like that business model so much. I'm curious if you've seen any push back from them?

Frank Smith: Oh well sure. We're the new kid in the block. We're new and we are a disruptive force in a medium size to smaller market. Usually, and any time, regardless of who it is, it creates waves. The question is what do you do with that, because waves have energy. The question is how do you translate that into something productive? Again, as I said before, we've got a couple of carriers who we're working with. We just hired a vice president of network engineering and operations, a guy by the name of Dave Armentrout. He's been in the industry for a long time, knows how to work specifically with the existing providers. My belief, all boats rise and fall with the same tide. If we're generating new abilities to track customers, retain customers and grow, the network usage that customers require, that benefits everyone in the community. That includes the existing providers. We have places where we have existing providers already leasing facilities from other providers. In this case, a municipal provider who already has some fiber. It's one of the municipal providers that we partner with, or actually part of our network. It's a question of its time, education, and most of all, patience but probably the bottom line is perseverance. I am rationally optimistic. We will grow a relationships.

Christopher Mitchell: Let me ask you about something that, I'm wondering if it's an old joke yet with the ice cream. When we spoke last it was still something that you were laughing at. I'm assuming that at a certain point you're going to say, "Oh I just wish we could get beyond this," but for my listeners, tell us about the ice cream.

Frank Smith: I'm a public servant. Regardless of what I think personally or professionally, I'm here to serve. That's the other difference of the authority, I am a public servant. Folks, remember part of the interesting thing is, it's kind of public private thing that we're going on here because we're entrepreneurial in how we're running the business, but yet we're also sticking to good, practical, fiscally responsible spending and planning. That's at the core of this. That's just table stakes, we can't get away from that. Then we carry over on the more of the public policy side, so you have elected officials who are elected by their constituents to serve. Part of the course of the politics, is always discourse. Whether you like the discourse or not, that's their job and they can speak their mind because we live in a democracy. Technically republic, but we have a democratic system. As far as the ice cream, the ice cream authority, somebody had said that we should be selling ice cream -- we'd like the government getting in that business.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that you were talking about earlier is just how important redundancy and reliability is. One of the arguments that we saw raised is this idea that you aren't doing anything that isn't already available in the market. Therefore, it might be similar to the county or the city or any public entity deciding that they were going to open an ice cream shop and try to perhaps run the other ice cream shops out of business.

Frank Smith: The short answer is that redundancy is basically a table stakes requirement in telecommunications. You need to have multiple paths, you need to have multiple providers. That argument does not hold water because at the end of the day, the more competition they have, the more options you have, the stronger your community is, the stronger it is for those who need to rely on that service. It's an interesting illustration, it's entertaining, but it's not accurate.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that I enjoyed was seeing that the local newspaper actually did an editorial on it and for me it's always important to see that, if it's something that the local paper feels strongly about, it indicates something to me I think.

Frank Smith: The paper is for the state and I have a lot of respect. Sometimes I agree with what they put in the paper, sometimes I don't. At the end of the day, that's their job. A very good job and their op-eds and other things have been very supportive, but they've also asked a lot of questions. They've gone through our books and done other things, and we've opened our books. Particularly they've ask for, they wanted to do FOIA or Freedom of Information Act requests, and we said "No, don't worry about. Just come in and see our books." We have a good team and we are doing what I consider the right thing for the community. Part of that all goes back to what's the motivation? It's economic development through, in this particular case, an open access network which is built upon a desire not just from the government side, but really both from public private on the business side, government, education and business to go forward and create something that's different that's a competitive advantage for the Roanoke Valley.

Christopher Mitchell: Well that's one of the other things I wanted to mention is actually as you leave the Roanoke Valley, I think one of the challenges you face is that heading over to Richmond, you're going to run into some pretty powerful lobbyists. A lot of times local governments, your authority, you don't have the capacity to be there every day, every night when these arguments are happening. Are you seeing anything coming out of Richmond that worries you?

Frank Smith: Well I think the thing is, it's not a question of stuff worrying me out of Richmond. It's being aware. We can't keep our head in the grass. We need to make sure that our voice is heard. We need to make sure that we do it accurately, succinctly, and most importantly, that we don't waste people's time. We've got to be on the mark as far as what we're about. Part of that goes to making sure we have an obligation to our customers. I have an obligation to my board and to the community. We're making sure that we are following things. There are different channels. We have things that we can use specifically, if that makes sense, so that those who are in the public policy arena are aware of who we are, what we're doing, why we're doing it, and most importantly, why is it important to them because of the impact it has on us as citizens.

Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. Is there anything else going on there that you want to make sure we cover that we haven't talked about yet.

Frank Smith: Well we're really excited about trying to develop new verticals for this area, and in particular on the defense side because we've got great cooperation with the folks down there in the Blacksburg community, which is only 30, 35 miles away.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, and that's Virginia Tech. I mean that's --

Frank Smith: That's Virginia Tech and Blacksburg and they got their corporate research center. We've got strength in our region, we've got strength in our individual municipalities, and we've got strength in the region that is here as a whole. That region is technically considered the New River Valley, but we're working together. We see even a good play for us, just the strength of the southwestern part of Virginia. The chapter with the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association, which is actually headquartered out of the northern Virginia area, will gain greater awareness as far as what's down here. More importantly, what can be brought here. I'm really excited about that because that's something that's going to be a benefit for both the area here and also for the greater region.

Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. Well, thank you so much for your time today.

Frank Smith: Thank you Christopher.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Frank Smith, president and CEO of the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority in Virginia. Remember, we have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits podcasts available at Send an email to with your ideas for the show. You can follow Chris on Twitter, his handle is @CommunityNets. You can also follow stories on Twitter, where the handle is @MuniNetworks. Thanks to the group Mojo Monkeys for their song “Bodacious” licensed through Creative Commons, and thanks for listening to episode 221 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

RVBA Gets Governor Kudos

Earlier this month, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe recognized the community of Roanoke and the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority (RVBA) for their work in bringing better connectivity to the region. McAuliffe presented the Governor’s Technology Award at the Commonwealth of Virginia Innovative Technology Symposium (COVITS) in Richmond on September 7th.

The award recognizes the project because it has improved government service delivery and efficiency. In addition to serving local government, the network provides high-quality connectivity for businesses, offering affordable dark fiber, transport service, and dedicated Internet service. Christopher spoke with President and CEO Frank Smith about the network in episode #221 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

In a Facebook press release, Smith said:

“We are honored  to be recognized by the state for the work we're doing to ensure the Roanoke  Valley continues to be a great place to live, work, and start or grow a  technology business. This  affirms that as a community we have found yet another creative way to ensure our  region is competitive on the national scene.”

Congrats to the RVBA and the Roanoke Valley!


Virginia's Roanoke Valley Opens Fiber Access - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 221

Having few options for high-quality telecommunications service, Virginia's Roanoke Valley formed a broadband authority and is building an open access fiber-optic network with different options for ISPs to plug-in.

In addition to being our guest on Community Broadband Bits episode 221, Frank Smith is the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority CEO and President. We discuss their various options for ISPs to use their infrastructure and the various services their network is providing, including access to conduit and dark fiber leases. We also discuss why they formed a state authority to build their carrier-grade network.

Though they have had some pushback from incumbents - something Frank seems unphased by in calling the Authority "the new kid on the block" - they have built local support by building relationships with local organizations like Blue Ridge PBS.

Read all of our Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority coverage here.

Read the transcript of the episode here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 29 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to mojo monkeys for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bodacious."

Virginia’s Fauquier County Hires Broadband Consultant

Fauquier County, located less than an hour west of Washington, D.C., recently formalized a contract with a Virginia-based consultant to develop a broadband Internet strategy for the county. The county is home to nearly 70,000 residents, many commute to work in D.C.

What’s the problem?

Fauquier County had the eighth-highest median income in the United States in 2011, yet its rural residents lack high-speed Internet access options. Large corporate Internet service providers (ISPs), Comcast and Verizon, deliver high-speed Internet to profitable markets in Fauquier’s largest towns, Bealeton, Warrenton, and Marshall. However, due to low population densities and low projected returns, incumbent ISPs did not invest in broadband infrastructure upgrades that rural communities need. 

Earlier this spring, the county government created the Fauquier Broadband Advisory Committee (FBAC), a ten-member committee tasked with exploring Internet accessibility solutions for the county. The recently approved feasibility study is the first step to bringing rural residents the services they require. 

Tackling the Urban/Rural Divide

The $60,000 assessment and feasibility study will prioritize economic development opportunities and quality of life improvements for Fauquier residents. The study also aims to map county demand and assess how to best deliver last-mile coverage to the entire county, including the 57 percent of residents who live in rural areas. The consultant released two countywide broadband surveys to pinpoint local interest, one for residents and another for businesses

The county plans to designate infrastructure projects as capital expenses and potentially create an independent broadband entity to run the network. For local officials, there are important returns to a better network. Improved connectivity could lead to job growth, improved educational outcomes, and better healthcare and public safety. Rick Gerhardt, who sits on FBAC, told Fauquier Now:

“It’s about economic viability, more people can work at home... and education… We’ve got kids in this county who can’t do their homework without going to McDonald’s… I don’t think you can survive a day without broadband.”

Push Poll And Passion: Network Will Expand in Roanoke County

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.

Questionable Questions

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...

Our "Open Access Networks" Resources Page Now Available

When communities decide to proceed with publicly owned infrastructure, they often aim for open access models. Open access allows more than one service provider to offer services via the same infrastructure. The desire is to increase competition, which will lower prices, improve services, and encourage innovation.

It seems straight forward, but open access can be more complex than one might expect. In addition to varying models, there are special challenges and financing considerations that communities need to consider.

In order to centralize our information on open access, we’ve created the new Open Access Networks resource page. We’ve gathered together some of our best reference material, including links to previous stories, articles from other resources, relevant Community Broadband Bits podcast episodes, case studies, helpful illustrations, and more.

We cover: 

  • Open Access Arrangements
  • Financing Open Access Networks
  • Challenges for Open Access Networks
  • U.S. Open Access Networks
  • Planned Open Access Networks

Check it out and share the link. Bookmark it!

Virginia Beach Growing Municipal Network For Savings, Development

Virginia Beach has launched a $4.1 million capital improvement project to extend the city’s high-speed Internet network to all municipal buildings. The network will also offer connection spots on the system for colleges, businesses, and neighboring cities, according to the Virginian Pilot.

The city (pop. 448,479) plans to more than double the reach of its municipal network, adding 73 more sites, including more police stations, fire stations, and libraries. Project work is currently underway and is expected to finish in the next year to 18 months. In addition to extending the municipal network, the project will include buying new networking equipment. The city is using money from its capital fund to pay for the project.

Once the project is completed, Virginia Beach will become the first community in the South Hampton Roads region of Virginia with its own Internet network linking all of its government buildings, the Virginian Pilot reported

Growing City Internet Needs

Virginia Beach started its municipal Internet network in 2002 with the local public schools. Since then, the city has invested a total $27 million to install about 225 linear miles of fiber-optic cable, linking all the public schools along with  “connecting many government buildings, including police stations, fire stations, libraries, recreation centers, and Human Services facilities,” according to a city news release.  

Today, Virginia Beach’s burgeoning Internet needs are fueling its municipal network expansion. The network helps maintain traffic lights, facilitates video conferencing, and provides infrastructure for email. A city spokesperson told us that 100 Megabit per second (Mbps) symmetrical service is available to most of the sites on Virginia Beach’s municipal network. 

Network Yields Savings

Once Virginia Beach’s municipal Internet network is fully implemented, the city will save about $500,000 annually in Internet access fees, Matt Arvay, Virginia Beach’s chief information officer, told the Virginian Pilot. For many years, Virginia Beach has paid to lease lines from Cox Communications for buildings not on its network. Without the need to lease those lines, the city can better control and predict their telecommunications costs.

Boosting The City’s Economic Development 

City officials see expanding their municipal network also as a strong enticement to retain and attract economic development, including biomedical companies and other new high-tech businesses.


That includes establishing “connectivity opportunities for Old Dominion and Norfolk State universities and Tidewater Community College,” Mayor William D. Sessoms Jr. said recently in his 2016 State of the City address.   

The mayor and other city officials also envision their expanded municipal network will provide neighboring cities the opportunity to connect to Virginia Beach’s network for their own municipal broadband. 

In his State of the City address, Sessoms contended:

 “Virginia Beach is on the verge of becoming the East Coast’s fiber transmission hub, facilitating ultra-high-speed broadband communications across the ocean. Picture this….  Lines of fiber running beneath the Atlantic Ocean — from Europe and Brazil to Dam Neck Road, and on to fiber transmission facilities at the Corporate Landing Business Park….With the expansion of broadband, we are on the cusp of incredible economic growth leading to innovations and breakthroughs in medicine, business and technology.”  

Besides addressing its growing municipal needs, the city of Virginia Beach anticipates having enough fiber available to lease fiber to private businesses. If that occurs, one potential beneficiary could be the developers of a proposed biomedical park on 155 acres in Princess Anne Commons, according to Warren Harris, the city’s director of Economic Development,in the Virginian Pilot news story.

In April, the Virginia Beach City Council approved transferring that 155 acre parcel in Princess Anne Commons to the city Development Authority to create a biomedical-related business park. In an earlier news release, the city said, “Expanding ultra-high-speed Internet to the park is a high priority.”

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


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.


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. 

Full Speed (and Price List) Ahead for the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority

After a rocky start and a long period of transition, the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority in Virginia is preparing for the years ahead. Hoping to snag schools, hospitals, government offices, and Internet carriers with their prices, the Broadband Authority just released its proposed rate structure. 

They expect to complete construction of five major sections of the fiber network by early March. Starting in mid-April, customers will have service. The proposed rates are as follows:

  • Dark Fiber: $40-$100 per strand mile depending on whether the institution is a nonprofit
  • Transport Service (requires a 2 year term): speeds between 10 Megabits-per-second (Mbps) - 200 Gigabits-per-second (Gbps) for $350 - $4,510 
  • Dedicated Internet Service (requires a 2 year term): 10Mbps - 1Gbps for $550 - $5,687 

The full preliminary proposed rate structure [PDF] is available from the Broadband Authority’s website.

The Authority will hold a public hearing on Friday, March 18 at 8:30 a.m. on the rate structure. After the public hearing, the board may request to adopt the preliminary proposed rates. Local news has the rest: