Jim Baller Applauds Botetourt County’s Pro-Active, Open Minded Search for Broadband Solutions

CLIC President, Jim Baller, last week delivered the keynote address at the BoCo Summit in Botetourt County, Virginia. In his address, Jim spoke of the proud history of local Internet and broadband innovation emanating from rural Virginia and then offered some big picture suggestions to aid in that continuing success.

Jim Baller, Keynote Address, The Rural Broadband Technology Solutions Summit, Botetourt, VA – September 26, 2018

Thank you that generous introduction, Arleen [Boyd]. I am delighted to be here, especially because this is one of the best local government listening-and-learning sessions that I’ve ever seen. You have brought together an amazingly talented and experienced array of broadband experts.  You’ve reminded me of President John F. Kennedy’s quip at a dinner he hosted for a large group of Nobel Prize winners, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

I applaud Board of Supervisors and the Broadband Planning Committee for your vision, your energy, your pro-activism, and your open-mindedness. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “Give me six hours to cut down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening my axe.” That, in essence is what the Board and the committee are doing, and I’m sure that you will be well rewarded for this.

I consider myself to be the most fortunate attorney in America, and events like this contribute mightily to that feeling. I feel so lucky and fulfilled to be able to work every day with progressive, adaptive communities around the country, helping them to help themselves to a better future through advanced communications capabilities.  I have the opportunity to work on both policy issues and site-specific individual projects, with highly creative and courageous clients and colleagues.  I particularly enjoy working on bipartisan public-private partnerships that focus on economic development and benefit of all concerned.  For all this, I have much to thank this region, where my career in telecom really took off.

About twenty-five years ago, I began to serve as outside telecom counsel to the American Public Power Association, the national association representing the interests of America’s 2,000 publicly-owned electric utilities. Most of these utilities emerged during America’s push for electrification between the 1880s and 1930s, in communities that were being left behind by private power companies.  The communities that did this generally survived and thrived, while many other communities that waited for the private sector to get around to them stagnated or even became “Ghost Towns.”

In the early 1990s, APPA and many of its members grew increasingly concerned that the history of the power industry was going to repeat itself in the telecom area, with private phone and cable companies focusing on lucrative urban markets and leaving rural communities behind in the emerging era of advanced communications. My job was to help ensure that public power communities would have the authority and ability to take matters into their own hands again, if necessary, as they had done so successfully in the electric power arena.

One of my early assignments was to help APPA and its members participate successfully in the debates that led up to Congress’s major overhaul of the federal telecom laws in the Telecommunications Act of 1996. To support APPA’s efforts on Capitol Hill, I wrote a white paper that compared this period in telecommunications with the comparable period in the electric power industry. The comparison was jaw-dropping in 1994, and it is still striking today.

Like electric utility systems, advanced communications networks are all-purpose platforms, drivers, and enablers of simultaneous progress in just about everything that matters to communities.This includes economic development and global competitiveness, lifetime educational and occupational opportunity, public safety, access to affordable modern health care, environmental protection, energy efficiency and security, high-quality government services, urban revitalization, digital equity, democratic engagement, entertainment, and much more.

Not surprisingly, more communities across America than ever before are now seeking to obtain affordable access to advanced communications networks. They are working with willing incumbents, partnering with new entrants, building their own networks if they believe that’s their best option, or developing other creative engagement models. The public is solidly behind these local efforts.  A recent poll by Pew Research showed that 70 percent of Americans, including both Democrats and Republicans, believe that local governments should have the right to develop their own broadband networks if they feel that doing so is necessary.

Among the earliest of America’s localities to understand the potential of advanced communications capabilities was the City of Lynchburg, just 55 miles from here. In the mid-1990s, the Lynchburg city government and school system jointly built a 42-mile fiber network for $3.5 million to connect the city’s public facilities and schools. After reading the white paper that I mentioned a few minutes ago, the City’s public works director, Ray Booth, and his deputy, David St. John, sought out and engaged our firm to help them figure out what else the City could do with its fiber network.

As soon as word of our engagement became public, Verizon’s predecessor, Bell Atlantic, pushed a bill through the Virginia legislature that not only prohibited localities from selling telecommunications services directly to the public, but also barred localities from making telecom infrastructure available to companies that could compete with Bell Atlantic.

There were only two exceptions. One exception was for all localities located adjacent to Exit 17 off Interstate 81. Can anyone guess what that applied to?  This particular shoe fit only Abingdon, the home of Rick Boucher, who was then a major force in telecom in the US Congress. The other exception was that localities could sell their networks to the private sector without offering them to Bell Atlantic.

In response to the new law, the City launched what we called the Strategic Partner Development Process, a nationwide search for a strategic partner.  We started with about 40 candidates, and we ultimately came down to CFW Telecom, a 100-year old communications company based in Waynesboro, VA.  In case some of you are wondering, “CFW” stood for Clifton Forge/Waynesboro. CFW later became nTelos, and nTelos, in turn, was acquired by Lumos Networks.  In what may have been the first public-private partnership in America involving a fiber broadband network, we ended up with a deal that worked well for both parties, for different but complementary reasons.

The City sold its network to CFW for $1 dollar. This complied with the Virginia law in question and gave CFW a state-of-the-art fiber backbone, a substantial potential market, a beachhead from which to expand throughout the region, and a very happy city that was eager to promote its partnership.  In return the City got

  • the right to continue to use the fibers it was currently using without charge for the next 30 years;
  • the right to use 8 fibers on all new CFW builds in the city, again without charge for 30 years;
  • CFW’s commitment to make broadband Internet access available to 95 percent of the addresses in the City within 4 years, with minimum buildout requirements specified for each year;
  • CFW’s commitment to provide the City the best telephone rates in Virginia for the next 10 years;
  • CFW engineering consulting services worth up to $200,000;
  • Use of CFW’s purchasing discounts of up to $500,000.

Not a bad deal for a City whose fiber network had already paid for itself within 18 months. Before I move on from Lynchburg, I’d like to share a war story with you.  I was reminded of this as I was talking to your economic development specialist, Ken McFayden, last night.  Our talk brought home to me how far economic development professionals have come over the last few years.

When Lynchburg’s Strategic Partnership Development process got down to a short list of 6 candidates, we invited each company to come to Lynchburg to make its case. On our side of the table, we’d typically have representatives of Lynchburg’s city government, the school system, local businesses and colleges, and the local and regional economic development organizations.  We’d kick off a discussion about what the Lynchburg community could do with an advanced broadband network, others would pick up the theme and build on it, and before long, the energy around the room would rise to such a level that we could levitated the conference table.

In the middle of one of these sessions, the representative of a company from California watched the discussion accelerating around the room and, after a while, leapt up from her chair and yelled, “I’ve got it, I’ve got it!  I know just what Lynchburg needs – a chips factory!”  “Oh no,” the regional economic development expert responded, “Lynchburg already has a chips factory – its Frito Lay potato chips plant.”

Happily, as you’re seeing in this Summit, economic development professionals now understand that advanced communications capabilities will increasingly becoming essential, but not alone sufficient, features of successful communities in the years and decades ahead, as electricity was in the last century.  As a result, economic development professionals are now critical members of a community’s broadband team.

Let me know turn to a few “big picture” suggestions that I hope will contribute to the County’s success in this Summit and beyond.

First, keep on doing what you’ve already started. You’ve defined your goals, created an open process, invited stakeholders and potential contributors of all kinds to participate, and kept an open mind.  Bravo to you.  You’re on exactly the right path.

Second, these are uncertain times, with many unknowns and unknowables. As you consider the advice that you’ll be receiving, try to distinguish between facts and opinions, and be wary of taking anyone’s arguments at face value. That includes assertions by the Federal Communications Commission, the communications industry, and the media. In particular, don’t trust lawyers like me when we’re spouting off on technological, business, marketing, and other matters that are beyond our legal expertise. Instead, seek advice from experts who have had years of first-hand experience with successful broadband initiatives in circumstances comparable to yours.  If you’d like, I can help you identify the best of these experts.

Let me give you some examples of claims that deserve great caution. We hear every day from some quarters that fifth-generation – that is, “5G” – wireless networks will cure all that ails America, that winning the global race to 5G will create trillions of dollars of gross national product and millions of new jobs, and that 5G networks will eliminate the digital divide between rural and urban areas. Wouldn’t it be great if all this were true? Unfortunately, some of it may not be, at least not in the next few years for rural markets, including some areas of Botetourt County.

There’s a healthy and spirited debate going on around America today about what 5G is, about whether 5G can be successful even in major cities in the United States, and about whether 5G will ever work in rural areas that cannot economically justify the construction of the fiber backhaul necessary for 5G wireless to work.

Without giving these key foundational issues the attention they deserve, the Federal Communications Commission has decided to make rapid 5G deployment one of its top priorities. Unfortunately, in doing so, it has tried to portray state and local governments as impediments to such deployments. In fact, the Commission is voting today on new rules that would severely restrict local authority to manage public rights of way and facilities and to obtain fair compensation for doing so. The FCC’s new rules are likely to result in endless litigation, not just over the FCC’s authority to impose such overbearing rules on state and local governments, but also about how localities should apply the rules on a case-by-case basis. This sadly reminds me of former Colorado governor Richard Lamm’s trenchant observation that “No nation ever sued its way to greatness.”  I applaud the Botetourt County Board of Supervisors for its recent letter to the Federal Communications Commission applauding its goals but taking strong issue with the Commission’s approach to achieving them.

I’m not going to get into these issues in greater depth now, as they are on the agenda for discussion later today.  I suggest to you, however, that there are few bigger issues affecting local governments today, including Botetourt County, than this one.

Third, the world of communications today is a Tower of Babel. It’s “5G,” “Smart Cities,” “Dig Once,” “One Touch Make Ready,” “Internet of Things,” “The Future of Work,” buzz-word after buzz-word. How can a community make sense of all this and avoid either being frozen in place or being led astray by all the hype?  The key, I suggest, is to view your community holistically, to distill from the buzz-words the core principles that make sense for your community, and to take full advantage of the maximum amount of flexibility that evolving federal and state law allows you to exercise. Every community is unique, and its accountable elected officials are in the best position to determine what the community wants its future to be, what it has, what it needs, and what it is willing and able to do to achieve its goals.  That, at bottom, is what’s so wrong with the Federal Communications Commission’s one-size-fits-all approach.

Fourth, during a recent visit to London’s remarkable city transportation museum, I came across two thought-provoking quotations from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a French philosopher and writer who lived from 1900 to 1944.  Saint-Exupéry’s first quotation was:

“A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment that a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral.”

His second was:

 “[Our] task is not to foresee the future but to enable it.”

In my experience, there are two things that are present in just about every successful broadband project.  One is local visionaries and champions who see cathedrals in rock piles, who are willing to bet big on the future, and who will work 24/7 to meet every challenge necessary to make the project a success. But that’s not enough. There’s an equally strong need for clear-eyed realists who will cross-examine every fact, figure, and assumption that the visionaries and champions may make and will ensure that the project remains grounded in reality. So, by all means, think cathedrals, but base your decisions on conservative estimates that overstate costs, understate revenues, and leave plenty of headroom to cope with the inevitable unforeseen or unforeseeable circumstances.

Last, I’d like to leave you with a quotation from a great hero of mine, Senator John McCain.  In the mid-2000s, he and Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) co-sponsored a bill called the “Community Broadband Act” that would have banned state barriers to local broadband initiatives, while protecting private carriers from discriminatory local regulation.  The bill drew broad bipartisan support in both houses of Congress, and came close to becoming law in 2006.

Senator McCain’s core philosophy was succinctly summarized in this sentence from his statement on the Senate floor when he introduced his bill.  “As a country, we cannot afford to cut off any successful strategy if we want to remain internationally competitive.” No single approach is going to meet all of our Nation’s broadband challenges.  We’ve got to be open to all options, especially community-driven options, that might work well in the circumstances at hand.

All of us, in our own ways, have the interest, the ability, and the opportunity to help make our communities, our states, and our country a better place.  Let’s get on with it.

Jim Baller presenting Senator McCain an award  in 2005 for  co-sponsoring  the Community Broadband Act.