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Proposed Broadband Bill Would Bring About More Transparency from Municipal Providers

Sean MacEntee / Flickr

Last year, a government-owned broadband network in Bristol Virginia was plagued in scandal -- as executives jacked up internet prices on customers who had no other options but to pay or lose service, all while treating themselves to limo rides and skybox seats.

That’s led lawmakers in Richmond to ask: What role should local governments play when it comes to expanding internet access in poor, rural areas?

For many lawmakers, the corruption scandal in Bristol offers a cautionary tale — extortion, tax evasion, fraud. That’s what can happen when utilities operate in the shadows, and it’s one of the reasons Republican Delegate Kathy Byron says she’s pushing a bill that would increase transparency and create additional hurdles for municipally-owned broadband networks in areas already serviced by private providers, like Verizon or Comcast.

“This bill does not stop municipals from creating their own networks.”

What it does do, Byron says, is carry out recommendations from the state auditor in the wake of the scandal in Bristol.

“If the marketplace is not entering into an area it should give us all pause and put up a caution sign to sit down and have a more meaningful discussion why that model isn’t working.”

But if the bill passes the House, it might not get too far in the Senate. Republican Senator Frank Wagner chairs the committee that would hear the bill.

“Should it get over there, I can assure you it’s going to get somewhat of a frosty treatment should it come over to the Senate.”

He says local governments play an important role in making sure infrastructure like broadband is in place. And other opponents point out that Byron, the bill’s main sponsor, has taken large campaign donations from Verizon.

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