Southwest Virginia’s Roanoke Valley likes to promote itself as a good environment for business. Anchored by the city of Roanoke, Virginia Tech is nearby and the cost of living is low compared to other Virginia and U.S. cities. Industrial electricity rates are below the national average. So too are construction and labor costs.
But approximately three years ago, some influential members of the area’s business community asked local officials to examine where the Roanoke Valley stood in terms of its Internet connectivity and whether the area was losing any competitive edge in attracting new business and supporting existing tech companies or other broadband-dependent businesses.
Smaller Virginia towns were garnering national attention for their local broadband infrastructure efforts. Galax, near the North Carolina border, joined forces with neighboring small communities to create the Wired Road Authority, a public-private partnership, which in 2009 led to an open-access, integrated regional broadband network with 100-megabit connections and, later, gigabit connections in 2013.
In 2007, Danville, an economically languishing tobacco and textiles town also near the North Carolina border, created a high-speed municipal open-access fiber network, nDanville, that first connected schools and later, businesses. It’s since been touted for its local economic development efforts.
In the Roanoke Valley, local leaders hired a consultant to figure out whether the area was falling behind.
Salem City Manager Kevin Boggess, whose city adjoins the city of Roanoke, told GovExec State & Local on Monday that when you examine the area’s digital connectivity, one thing is clear: “We don’t think we have what we need to attract new technology businesses to the Roanoke Valley.”
That led to the creation of the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority, a coalition of two independent cities, Roanoke and Salem, plus Roanoke County and Botetourt County. The group, formed in 2013, has been in the early stages of creating its own open-access fiber network, which is slated to cost $8.2 million.
The aim is to add five rings of fiber throughout the Roanoke area, creating a local network approximately 60 miles in length. That would tap directly into two existing high-speed fiber networks nearby — Mid-Atlantic Broadband Cooperative’s network, which connects to a long-distance line between Atlanta and Washington, D.C., and Citizens Telephone Cooperative’s BTOP network in Southwest Virginia, which has connections to Blacksburg, home to Virginia Tech.
But on Friday, broadband authority representatives from the two counties, including Roanoke County Administrator B. Clayton Goodman III, indicated that they may soon back away from their support of the initiative, citing not just budgetary constraints but also, as The Roanoke Times reported Friday, “a more philosophical debate about the the role government should play in society.”
And that might leave the two cities, which already have pledged their support, to pursue a scaled-back project without the help of the counties.
“Not everyone looks at this in the same way. The cities of Salem and Roanoke see this as a necessary economic-development effort,” Boggess told GovExec. “The questions being asked right now are: ‘If we do this, who really benefits? . . . Are we competing with the private sector?’”
Robert Picchi, a consultant for Blue Ridge Advisory Services, which was hired to draft the broadband plan, spoke about the relationship between digital infrastructure investment and local business climate during Friday’s broadband authority meeting.
“Either you believe there is a linkage between investment in technology and economic development, or you do not,” he said, according to The Roanoke Times. “And I cannot change your minds.”
Boggess told GovExec that supporters of the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority’s project view the community’s investment in the open-access network as one that will attract new businesses and help existing ones get improved connectivity.
“We simply want to create the infrastructure,” he said, stressing that this is not a municipally owned “last mile” network, one that brings Internet access directly to individual customers who might not be well served by existing Internet providers.
“We’re not here to compete,” Boggess said. “We’re simply here to build a suitable open-access network that any qualified user can use.”
That includes existing “incumbent” Internet providers. “With open-access fiber, incumbents can use it and new players can use it, too,” Boggess said. “The incumbents have expressed some of their concerns to local officials . . . and now we’re seeing the results of that.”
Boggess said that the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority will meet on Aug. 7 to determine next steps and whether the cities of Roanoke and Salem will have to go it alone.
“My hope is that we will have figured out whether or not that the two county representatives will support this plan,” he said. “If by [Aug. 7] , if it appears that we won’t have the support from the counties . . . I hope that the cities will be ready to move on a backup plan.”
If the counties pull out of the coalition, it would mean that the cities of Roanoke and Salem would have to scale back the proposed broadband network from five rings to perhaps two or three.
Boggess said that Salem is well positioned to help host a local fiber network because it already owns its own electric utility, some existing fiber infrastructure of its own and a data center.
Still, if Roanoke and Botetourt counties pull out, it could project an image that the Roanoke Valley isn’t a place where tech companies would want to set up shop because of a reluctance by local officials to expand fiber networks.
“I think that, unfortunately, that might be the perceived message,” Boggess said, adding that would be an unfair perception. “We have some great advantages here in the Valley,” for tech companies, he said.
As the county representatives continue to examine the merits of the Roanoke Valley broadband investment, supporters are waiting for news about where the counties stand on the project.
With Virginia’s local governance structure of independent cities and counties, “sometimes it’s hard to pull everyone together,” Boggess said. “Hopefully we will find a way to move forward together. . . Hopefully we will be so successful that everyone wants to join in.”