Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority: Progress Made, All Indicators Favorable

As they look back over their accomplishments, the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority (RVBA) has more than the holidays to celebrate at the close of 2018. In addition to stimulating competition in the region, the RVBA network is attracting more investment and helping local nonprofits operate more efficiently.

Dual Purpose

For Feeding America Southwest Virginia in Salem, connectivity from RVBA is critical. “Without that Internet connection reliability, it would be very difficult for us to achieve our mission,” says IT Director Eric Geist. The food bank is one of the enterprise customers that the RVBA serves in the region, providing affordable access to organizations and institutions such as nonprofits, businesses, and institutions.

By providing affordable connectivity and services focused on the needs of businesses, the RVBA network has helped drive competition in the region. According to CEO Frank Smith’s research, prices have dropped 25 - 30 percent. The change squares with the RVBA mission to enhance and promote economic development by improving connectivity services and prices in Salem, Roanoke, and the counties of Roanoke and Botetourt. They've seen results in the past three years with greater expectations ahead.

The History

Before the network, the valley was caught in a connectivity “donut hole.” The populations in Salem and Roanoke had access to some cable Internet access and were large enough to prevent the region from obtaining grants to entice providers to upgrade. In 2013, local governments decided to work together to improve connectivity and funded a feasibility study, which recommended an open access network.

roanoke-valley-va_1.jpg Botetourt and Roanoke Counties were indecisive about their commitment to the project, but the cities of Salem and Roanoke pushed ahead. Salem, with its own electric utility, already had some fiber infrastructure in place, which lowered the cost of the project. Even through negative push polls from the Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association (top donors Comcast and Cox), local support for the investment remained. Folks in the Roanoke Valley understood the connection between the network and economic opportunity.

By the spring of 2016, the network started connecting their intended customers — businesses, schools, libraries, and nonprofits. In addition to Internet and data transport services, customers had the ability to lease dark fiber and manage their own IT structure. The RVBA also hoped to attract last mile residential Internet access companies interested in delivering services to households in the Roanoke Valley.

It didn’t take long for entities taking advantage of the network to sing their praises, including Blue Ridge PBS, the Western Viriginia Water Authority, and David Carter, Chief Technology Officer from Advanced Logic Industries:

”For the first time in my years in IT; a fiber construction engagement; happened on time and as promised. You are to be congratulated on setting up the RVBA for continued success; and with customer service like this you can count on ALI to be an advocate for your services in the region. Thank you again; for helping us with a mutual client do what we were explicitly told could not be done in Roanoke."

Learn more about the network; listen to episode 221 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Christopher interviews CEO Frank Smith:

Word Got Around

After receiving the Governor’s Technology Award in the fall of 2016 and word spread about service from RVBA, more businesses and other entities signed up. In addition to GE Digital’s Meridium finance, RDG Filings, and Eldor Corp. When Elder Corp. was looking for a location to develop a $75 million manufacturing facility in Botetourt County, RVBA helped out by extending the network to their site.

Over the past three years, the RVBA has expanded the network to approximately 80 miles. In 2017, ABS Technology started offering residential Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) services in Roanoke to a downtown apartment building via RVBA fiber. The network also serves Virginia Western Community College (VWCC) and have connected a downtown Roanoke business and tech accelerator, in collaboration with the college.

Heralded, But…

It’s clear that the local communities’ investment is paying off in several ways: employers are bringing new development, competition is making rates more reasonable for entities that can’t afford necessary high-quality connectivity, and services are finally available that never were before. The RVBA is accomplishing its mission to boost economic development, an ambition shared by local elected officials.

While most local leaders have shown support for the RVBA and the network, a few still oppose the investment. Often their lack of support is rooted in incorrect information that that, through repetition, perpetuates the wrong idea about publicly owned networks. For example, a recent Roanoke Times article, covers bipartisan support and accomplishments of the RVBA, but also repeats the line from former Roanoke Board of Supervisors Al Bedrosian that the investment amounts to “government subsidized Internet.” 

logo-RVBA-new.png Like a municipal electric utility, the RVBA network is infrastructure that earns revenue from those that use it, which includes local businesses, nonprofits, and other entities. The local communities of Salem and Roanoke invested to improve economic development with fiber infrastructure and it’s paying off. Established rates are reasonable, realistic, and competitive — not subsidized in order to be artificially low.

Unlike proposed payments to large providers to build out rural Internet access (usually with outdated DSL) or to develop better service, when the RVBA or other publicly owned network earns revenue, it stays in the community. Public funds handed over to Frontier, Comcast, or AT&T are used to build inferior infrastructure that earns profits for shareholders.

The article also fails to clearly mention that the RVBA does not offer residential Internet access to the public, but allows private sector companies to do so. The RVBA provides the infrastructure that last mile providers lease and on which they deliver Internet access to homes. The RVBA isn’t competing for household subscribers, but creating an environment in which households have more options.

For more on the services and rates the RVBA offers to businesses, nonprofits, institutional customers, municipal entities, and similar organizations, check out their services page.

Both Sides of the Aisle

The Roanoke Times referred to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey indicating that both Democrats and Republicans believe local control should govern municipal broadband network decisions. When we examined elections between 2008 and 2012, we determined that conservative communities are most likely to have developed broadband networks. Joe McNamara, who was just elected to the Virginia House of Delegates on a strong Republican platform, has been an ardent supporter of the RVBA. When asked about the publicly owned option in the past, McNamara replied:

“It’s definitely, definitely something that whether you’re a Republican, Democrat, independent it really makes no difference,” McNamara said. “Everybody kind of has coalesced behind the need really to view broadband as another utility.”

Check out local coverage from WDBJ7 on the network and Feeding America Southwest Virginia:


Image of Roanoke, Virginia, by Joe Ravi [CC BY-SA 3.0]