Martinsville, Virginia, Investigates Network Expansion

Not long ago, we shared information on MINET, the municipal network in Martinsville, Virginia, that serves schools, municipal facilities, and about 30 local businesses. We noted that businesses are attracted to the area and cite the capabilities of the fiber network as a driving force.

The Martinsville Bulletin now reports that city leaders have been approached by more local businesses interested in saving money by connecting through the network. The Bulletin spoke with City Manager Leon Towarnicki who said "we are essentially maxed out”  in staff and resources. Obviously, economic development through MINET is moving along well. The City Council is now considering the costs and benefits of expanding.

The city is working with CCG Consulting to develop a business plan. CCG will soon begin a business and residential survey and review of the city's current network. The survey and plan will explore the possibility of deploying a fiber-to-the-home network and communication system, but Martinsville will shy away from operating a cable television system. From the article:

Asked if the city would try to provide cable TV service again, City Attorney Eric Monday said, “We tried it. We litigated. We lost. We’re done.”

Martinsville made an attempt to acquire a retail cable television service in 2006, but found itself in a long and expensive court battle. Adelphia had previously provided cable in the area but filed for bankruptcy in 2002 and as a result, failed to honor its franchise agreement. At the time, the city landfill had just closed and the city was looking for other ways to generate revenue. They wanted to purchase the network and tried to block Time Warner Cable and Comcast from doing so. Time Warner Cable wanted to purchase the network and then engage in a like-kind exchange. This technique is a common tool large cable corporations have used to ensure geographic monopolies.

Martinsville argued that they were grandfathered in, as in the case of Bristol, and thought it could take advantage of another exception by claiming it had installed a cable television "headend" before December, 2002. Virginia law effectively revoked local authority for communities to build triple-play networks unless they built the headend prior to that date. But the court disagreed with Martinsville; the judge ruled that contracting with Adelphia to install the headend was not the same as installing it themselves. 

According to a 2006 Martinsville Bulletin article, the City Council admitted they had made mistakes in being transparent in the effort to take over the failed Adelphia franchise:

Martinsville City Council members said Tuesday they should have kept the public better informed about their attempt to buy the local cable television franchises from Adelphia.

There is "a fog amongst the public" as to how the council made decisions regarding the purchase attempt, said Councilman Mark Anderson.

"I believe we could and should have been more open," said Councilman Ron Ferrill. "Perhaps we were too protective of our negotiating situation."

The City Council is engaging in a transparent process this time and carefully exploring the economic development possibilities of MINET. From the recent article on expansion talks:

[Mayor Kim Adkins] emphasized that all of the customers approached the city about using its system; the city did not approach them.

When businesses and residents approach a local government like Martinsville and asks for options, the community should have the authority to follow through without burdensome regulations that only apply to local governments and not to private sector companies.