Virginia’s Community Broadband Successes Give Truth To the Incumbents’ Lie.

Like an avenging angel of doom, state legislator Kathy Byron (R-Campbell County) blew into the opening session of the Virginia legislature bearing an incumbent-sanctioned (and probably ghost-written) anti-Muni network bill. As the Roanoke Times states, “In the spirit of naming bills the exact opposite of what they would do, her so-called “Virginia Broadband Deployment Act” would actually make it harder to extend broadband to areas that don’t presently have it — or don’t have enough of it.”

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Battle flagIn response, the forces of community good saddle up and ride into battle, a battle that includes debunking the usual array of incumbents’ lies and distortions about muni broadband. Bristol Virginia Utilities’ public-own broadband execution wasn’t pretty, but incumbents try to paint every community network with the same brush, which is deceitful and silly. Consider these four Virginia success stories from over a dozen cities and counties.

Going on 11 years of community broadband success

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Over 400 muni network successes offset the occasional poster child that incumbents love to dwell upon. What’s more, many of those muni networks endured inordinate amount of struggle because of anti-competition barriers incumbents loved to put in communities’ way. Incumbents currently are piling on new restrictions in Virginia and Missouri.

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“Virginia needs more investment in high quality Internet access, not less,” says Christopher Mitchell, Director, Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “Local governments have been essential to improving access in many areas long neglected by the private sector. Danville is a great example where smart municipal investments have brought many jobs to town.”

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Danville, VA, a town of 43,000 citizens, went from a state-record high of 19% unemployment at the time their network launched in 2006 to becoming a beacon for economic success five 2012. Danville’s public utility deployed the fiber network, nDanville, across 135 miles that passes more than 1000 business locations including five business parks. Their subscribers could access a 100 Mbps, 1 gigabit and 10 gigabit services. (Listen to their story on Gigabit Nation).

Danville’s elected leaders, the economic development team, and the medical community had a vision to create a healthcare Mecca in their part Virginia. The network was part of the investment in that vision. High tech companies attracted other technology companies. Some of these, particularly data centers, represented a high capital investment into the community.

The hightech companies offered the added bonus of being both trendy and offering higher paying jobs, which attracts younger people. At a personal level, the network contributed to keeping these workers in the area to eventually start families, buy homes and thus further increase tax revenues.

Adapting and performing for success

While some in the legislature present “doom & gloom” scenarios of more of these success stories flourishing, communities themselves are creating new ways in which public private partnerships can deliver broadband to underserved communities.

“In the status quo, communities are being advised to build ‘x’ number of towers, and lay ‘so many miles’ of fiber, or give anchor institutions to providers that will magically generate residential customers,” says Sandie Terry, Vice President, Broadband Programs, at the Center for Innovative Technology (CIT) in Virginia. Her team is setting the broadband deployment process on its ear.

Amelia County, Virginia has an agricultural economy and only 5,400 homes. When the first RFI went out, some providers said they could not financially support bringing broadband to such a small number of homes. When the county re-did the package based on Terry’s guidance, they offered a package that included schools, libraries, and the county government as anchors. The county offered providers a middle-mile fiber that had been built with BTOP funds, fee waivers, dedicated logistics support, digital literacy training, and a PC refurbishing program. Now they have several broadband suitors.

King and Queen County took a page from Danville’s playbook. nDanville relied on wireless infrastructure from Gamewood Technology Group in some of the utility’s service area. Since fiber wasn’t a good option for the county, Gamewood offered them a similar arrangement.

The county bought the network equipment, a design firm built the microwave backhaul, Gamewood constructed the network and manages all the business details, and Cox delivers Internet service. Gamewood and the county share the profits. Take note that Cox was willing to let the county provide services to sparsely populated communities while Cox collected monthly fees. And the county turns over to Cox customers for whom the incumbent’s pricing is better.

Also take note that King and Queen County, like other local jurisdictions, its wireless authority is comprised mostly of government officials, and in the future add management expertise from the business community. Greenwood recommends technology enhancements and upgrades. While the craziness with BVU is unfortunate, the other community networks expand in a logical, profitable way.

The secret to community broadband success

Franklin County, Virginia constituents probably don’t have lofty goals of becoming the next Chattanooga. But what they do have is a network that gives constituents and local government what they need and want. And they get it wirelessly from a business that credits the county for their growth and success.

While some federal and state agencies made it difficult for small providers to partake of broadband grant programs, Franklin County embraced a tiny start-up WISP called B2X in a full-on partnership. The County provided space on towers, water tanks and poles in exchange for reduced-cost services for County offices, fire and rescue stations and the government WAN. This arrangement lowered deployment costs for the WISP and expedited business growth.

“The secret to our success as a public private partnership was that both B2X and the county went out of our way understand the community’s needs,” observes Sandie Terry former County CIO. “At the same time, the county made sure we knew what the provider wanted and needed to be financially successful.”

B2X’s customer base went from 98 in early 2005 to over 1000 residential customers and 143 businesses in just three years. Since then, the WISP formed another partnership with a nearby county and has expanded to the status of regional provider servicing cities and towns in 15 counties. B2X is testing fiber to create stronger connections between all of the WISP’s networks.

You can read about some of the other Virginia community broadband success stories from Chris Mitchell’s organization. Phillip Dampier, Editor of Stop the Cap, lays bare the incumbent-ghostwritten, ALEC-endorsed, legislator-supported bill that would negate the will of the people. And get the latest on state restrictions on public-own broadband here and here.

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