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Sponsor of broadband legislation says law would expand, not limit, internet

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The lead sponsor of broadband legislation that would limit the ability of local governments to extend service is defending it against attacks that it’s designed to protect Comcast and other providers.

Rick Gerhardt, chairman of the Fauquier County Board of Supervisors, said the Virginia Broadband Deployment Act a “farce“ in a letter to the editor.

He said, “It doesn’t seek to deploy broadband at all; rather it seeks to prevent anyone from competing with Comcast and other members of the Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association.”

He added during an interview at the Fauquier Times on Monday that if the bill becomes law “we’ll have to sit back with what we have” in broadband coverage. He said that he’s talked to members of the Virginia General Assembly who represent Fauquier County – State Sen. Jill Vogel, Scott Lingamfelter and Michael Webert – and “that they told me they’re not going to support it.”

Continuing, he said, “If they say a municipality can’t be involved, then we can’t set up on authority or provide county funding. We’re dead.”

Gerhardt headed a broadband advisory committee that worked with a consultant hired by the company to identify service gaps, possible solutions and ways to fund expansion of service. The supervisors have rated better broad service service a top priority and will consider adding $20 million to the capital improvements project budget over the next five years for infrastructure improvements.

Delegate Kathy J. Byron, in answering critics, said the broadband deployment bill she introduced seeks to “expand the availability of broadband to Virginians who do not currently have it,” according to the Capital News Service.

A staff member in Byron’s office told the Fauquier Times on Monday that the bill is being revised, but to what extent it wasn’t known.

Byron held a press conference on Thursday to counter claims that the bill would protect internet service providers while denying rural Virginians a government-supported option for internet access.

“This bill is intended to fulfill a longstanding goal of the General Assembly, and the Broadband Advisory Council, to expand the availability of broadband to Virginians who do not currently have it,” Byron said, according to CNS.

Byron is a Bedford County Republican representing the 22nd District. Timothy D. Hugo, a Republican representing the 40th District, which includes parts of Prince William and Fairfax counties, is a co-sponsor of the bill.

The bill sets conditions for a local government to own and operate a broadband or internet communications system. An independent consulting firm must identify any areas not served by broadband speeds of both 10 Mbps or more of download and 1 Mbps or more of upload. A locality must meet operating requirements before it may provide “overbuild service.”

“Making huge capital investments with already-stressed budgets in rural areas, with risky returns on the investment, really needs to have oversight,” Byron said.

The delegate said the bill would bring increased transparency to publicly funded broadband projects in rural parts of the state.

But Gerhardt said the bill “sets up an obstacle course of red tape that a municipality must go through if they want to provide broadband.

“An example of this red tape is proving that giving subsidies to a for-profit company is not a valid option; basically municipalities have to prove that lining the pockets of large providers isn’t an effective solution,” he said.

According to the CNS story, Byron said she reached out to providers for language for HB 2108 but denied allegations that telecommunications industry officials helped craft it.

Service providers with customers in Fauquier were contacted by the Fauquier Times for comment on the bill.

“Virginia Broadband is all for responsible spending of county tax dollars and agree with HB 2801’s premise that public money should NOT be spent in truly “served areas” like town centers… or if so, spent as a means to provide an “alternative” Internet source to the citizens,” said Joe Lenig.

But Lenig added “this bill is a blatant attempt to thwart any competition.  We would like to see these tax dollars spent taking care of those in the deep rural areas.

He noted that while the county’s primary objective is to reach the unserved areas, “if this bill is passed, the unserved areas where another provider [cable] may be present in a few spots, but not ubiquitous, will not be acceptable. This will severely hamper a Wireless Internet Service Provider’s (WISP- like Virginia Broadband) ability to obtain grants or find profitability in truly unserved areas if wishing to utilize a new county-owned broadband asset.”

Claude Schoch of High Mountain Broadband saw the bill this way:

“Often the easiest, fastest and most economical way to cover the unconnected is to subsidize existing carriers to move into the difficult, hard to reach areas.

This is what this bill attempts to do.  Connect the unconnected first, and connect them in the fastest, most economical maner.

In my opinion the bill does have its flaws. It's poorly articulated, and the standard for a connected area should be the FCC defined broadband speed of 25Mbps, not the antiquated 10/1.

But it has good intentions of finally focusing resources on all the unconnected rural Virginians.”

Contact James Ivancic at jivancic.com

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