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Del. Byron Defends Her Broadband Legislation

By Jim Thomma, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A Republican lawmaker on Thursday defended her broadband-access bill from critics who say it favors established internet providers such as Comcast and Verizon while limiting competition from other companies and local governments.

Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford County, said HB 2108 actually seeks to “expand the availability of broadband to Virginians who do not currently have it.”

The bill, titled the “Virginia Broadband Deployment Act,” has garnered sharp criticism from advocates of rural broadband expansion. Byron said a Roanoke Times editorial criticizing the bill has spurred death threats against her.

Byron called a news conference to rebut claims that the bill would protect internet service providers while denying rural Virginians a government-supported option for internet access.

Byron, who has been in the House of Delegates for 19 years, heads the Broadband Advisory Council that advises the governor on broadband deployment policy.

Byron appeared at the news conference with Del. Jay Leftwich, R-Chesapeake, and representatives from the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce, the Northern Virginia Technology Council, the Virginia Cable Television Association, the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, Virginia Telephone Industry Association, and Cox Communications.

The Northern Virginia Technology Council has made campaign donations totaling $7,500 to Byron in the past four years, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Other top donors include private telecommunications companies such as Verizon and AT&T.

“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.

She said the bill would not stop local governments from creating their own networks, as critics claim. The bill simply would require confirmation by an independent consulting firm, such as the Center for Innovative Technology, that areas designated for development are “unserved.”

Opponents argue that the bill would discourage competition that would drive down broadband costs for poor Virginians and that it would hamper existing municipal broadband networks from providing a necessary service.

The Roanoke City Council unanimously condemned HB 2108 on Tuesday, claiming it would endanger a $9.6 million investment by the city and other local governments in the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority.

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

The Franklin County Board of Supervisors passed a similar resolution that same day.

The bill would also repeal several exclusions granted to local telecommunications services from Freedom of Information Act disclosures.

“I believe that exemption is being abused and applied to every aspect of municipal broadband deployment,” Byron said, “leaving the media and taxpayers in the dark about the expenditures and investments made with their money.”

Byron said the bill would bring increased transparency to publicly funded broadband projects in rural parts of the state, including her own district, which stretches from Bedford County east to Lynchburg and includes part of Franklin County.

“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 state auditor recommended tighter regulations in the public corruption lawsuit against Bristol Virginia Utilities, according to Byron.

Byron said she reached out to providers for language for HB 2108 but denied allegations that telecommunications industry officials had a part in crafting the legislation.

According to Byron, the bill grew out of her experience chairing the Advisory Council and as vice chair of the House Committee on Commerce and Labor.

Byron attributed “misleading analysis” about HB 2108 to the lack of transparency the bill seeks to address, and the lack of popular understanding it fosters.

“The misinformation and hyperbole that people are using is distracting from the real issue at hand,” she said.

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