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Roanoke council condemns Del. Kathy Byron's broadband bill

Roanoke council condemns Del. Kathy Byron's broadband bill

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The Roanoke City Council unanimously condemned a bill Tuesday in the Virginia House of Delegates that members say would gut the regional broadband internet authority in which the city and other local governments have invested $9.6 million.

The bill, filed last week by Del. Kathy Byron, R-Campbell, if enacted “will create de facto private monopolies that lack the incentive to expand high speed quality and affordable internet services to all areas of our region” and “place the city of Roanoke and its regional partners at a significant competitive disadvantage to other localities around the United States,” the council declared in its resolution.

“I’ll call it what it is,” said Councilman Ray Ferris in offering the resolution, “an effort by the legacy carriers to protect their turf. It’s crony capitalism at its finest.”

Legacy carriers would be the companies that offer high speed internet in the Roanoke Valley under franchise agreements with local governments, Comcast and Cox Communications, along with Verizon, which offers DSL internet service in many areas.

Crony capitalism is an apparent reference to the fact that Byron, former chairwoman of the state Broadband Advisory Council, has received nearly $70,000 in campaign contributions since 1998 from telecom companies, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. That includes $36,100 from Verizon alone, her second largest contributor behind the Republican Party of Virginia.

Byron’s bill limits the ability of governments to establish or expand municipal broadband services in areas already served by private carriers. She said last week the intent of the bill isn’t to kill local efforts like the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority, which also counts Salem and Roanoke and Botetourt counties in its members. Government should be cautious about building networks with taxpayer money that are better managed and maintained by private business.

Roanoke leaders say a particularly damaging aspect of the bill is its definition of areas “unserved” by high speed internet as those with service at speeds of 10 megabits per second or less, which they say is far too low. A speed of 5 mbps is enough to stream movies on Netflix.

That definition means municipal broadband would be barred in any area with access to internet speeds of that fast or higher. It also means that private carriers would only have to provide service at a speed just above that to keep municipal broadband from competing.

About 98 percent of the Roanoke Valley already has internet available at 10 mbps, according to data from Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology, an economic development nonprofit group focused on technology. Even rural Bent Mountain is at 78 percent.

Ferris said city officials have feared for a couple of years that a bill like Byron’s favoring legacy carriers would pop up.

He said the authority was created because area businesses said existing internet service was either too slow for their needs, too expensive, or both.

“If we had private carriers willing to provide services at a competitive rate,” Councilman Bill Bestpitch said, “we would never have wanted to get into this business.”

The bill as written “doesn’t just hurt the city of Roanoke, it hurts these localities where people are really hurting” like the coalfields region, he said.

Councilman John Garland said he recently built a house to sell in Botetourt County and he’s about to lose the sale of it because the buyers he found want to work from home and the DSL internet service available at the house isn’t fast enough. It’s comparable to what Byron’s bill considers “high speed,” he said.

Nearly all of the city council, along with City Manager Chris Morrill and other staff, are going to Richmond early Wednesday to make the argument against the broadband bill, starting with a 9 a.m. news conference with the Virginia Municipal League.

City pools will open this summer

The council and Morrill also announced that any thought of not opening the city’s two municipal pools at Washington Park and Fallon Park to find savings to address a $4 million budget shortfall has been abandoned.

“At this point, we can take pools off the table,” Morrill said. An agency that had been allocated federal Community Development Block Grant funds reported recently that they won’t be able to spend that money this year, so it will be used for the pool repairs, he said.

The council had been asked by staff to make a decision on the pools by early February. The Washington Park pool is in need of $150,000 in repairs, and it costs about $80,000 to operate both pools. If it was council’s choice to open the pools, staff need to know in time to retain a contractor to do the work at Washington Park. Similar work was done at Fallon Park five years ago.

Talk of closing the pools stirred numerous comments to council members in favor of keeping them open. Tuesday, Brenda Hale, president of the Roanoke branch of the NAACP, told the council her organization favored keeping them open.

That prompted Ferris to ask Morrill to update the situation. While Vice Mayor Anita Price and Garland were vocal in their support for the pools, council members said Tuesday they all wanted to keep the pools open and directed Morrill to find a way to do it.

Amtrak on time for October launch

Amtrak passenger rail service out of Roanoke is on track to begin in October after a final council action Tuesday to clear the way for construction of the boarding platform and track siding for the train.

The council approved granting an easement allowing Norfolk Southern Railway to build a retaining wall on the right of way for Norfolk Avenue downtown.

The wall is necessary to allow construction of the tracks where the train will stop, adjacent to platform that will run along Norfolk Avenue between Jefferson and Second Streets.

The easement was the last action necessary by the city to allow the project to go forward. Previously, city officials have said generally that Amtrak would come to Roanoke in the fall of 2017, but Tuesday during discussion at the council meeting, city leaders said it would begin in October.

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