The Patrick County Board of Supervisors approved a 10-year franchise agreement with Charter/Spectrum at its Monday, Aug. 8 meeting.
Mike Tanck, Charter/Spectrum’s Director of Government Affairs, said the company started working towards broadband in Patrick County in 2020 with the Federal Communications Commission (FFC) under Rural Digital Opportunity Funds (RDOF).
Tanck said the RDOF was to expand broadband to underserved areas of the country that had census block areas with no broadband at all. “When you look at a census block, let’s say there were 100 homes and there were two homes that had broadband, in the FFC eyes, and in these programs’ eyes that means that the entire census block is covered,” he said.
With these requirements Spectrum/Charter could go after blocks with zero broadband coverage in that area. In Patrick County, the company won 873 locations.
“In doing the program there is basically a six year build out window, and so we’re in the process of moving forward with that,” he said.
Tanck said Spectrum/Charter also worked with the county and with the Western Piedmont Planning District Commission (WPPDC) and filed an application for a Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI) grant.
“As we did that, we looked at areas that were somewhat adjacent to our RDOF areas. We also know that there are going to be other providers existing in the county,” he said.
He said Spectrum/Charter worked WPPDC to identify the areas to ensure the company was not going after or overlapping with areas that other companies were working in to help provide as close to 100 percent coverage as possible.
With the VATI grants, the company won an additional 690 locations for a combined total of 1,563 locations.
“That’s what the numbers show,” Tanck said. “We know there might be some slippage one way or the other, more or less, based on growth, numbers that weren’t accurate in the information.”
Tanck said Patrick County residents will receive the level of service Charter/Spectrum already provides across the county. “These areas will be built with fiber to the home, so it will be a hard line connect, it will not be an over the air or point to point wireless, or a cellular connection,” he said.
Tanck said the standard speed is 200 MB per second, and there will be the option of increasing that speed up to one GB. Low-cost options will be available for people that qualify.
“In addition to broadband we’ll have video services, landline phone service, and then we’ll also have Spectrum phone services,” he said.
To make this happen, he said Spectrum/Charter needed a franchise with the county to allow it to use rights of way to provide service.
Tanck said Spectrum/Charter and county attorney Mark Popovich mutually came up with the franchise agreement. “In general terms it’s about a 10-year agreement,” he said. “We provide insurance and identification. We’ll provide a construction bond to ensure that everything that we do is done properly, and if there’s any issues with that, we’re held liable for that.”
Under the franchise agreement, Spectrum/Charter will also be compliant with all state and federal laws regarding broadband and will comply with state communications and sales tax to ensure the county is getting the revenues it is owed.
Tanck said the RDOLF portion of the plan is six years under the federal requirements and the VATI portion is in a three-year window, adding that they intend to target the three-year window.
Brandon Simmons, of the Dan River District, said he’s looked over the plan and doesn’t have any issues with it, but was concerned with one section of the contract. “It says ‘grantees shall not be obligated to provide service to any area where it deems financially or technically infeasible to do so,’” he quoted.
Simmons said that section sounds very broad to him. “No offense to you or your company, you all are great, but who’s to say that so many years into this you might say ‘well, you know we spent this much if we go another year or two that’s going to put us a little over, we shouldn’t do that,’” he said.
Tanck said Spectrum/Charter is firstly governed under the federal rules under RDOLF. “What your franchise is doing is really allowing us to use the rights of ways,” he said. “We’ve put language that says we’re not going to go out and build something that’s going to be $50,000 to go build to one house. That’s not financially responsible.”
Malcolm Roach said he lives three-quarters of a mile off the road with all his lines being underground. “Comcast refuses to touch me,” Roach said. “I have no cellular service in my home at all. Comcast runs $45,000 to run a line to my home. Are you going to do the same thing to me?”
Tanck said Spectrum/Charter will build off the rights of way when it builds its fiber to the home areas. “A fiber to the home … can go roughly 1,000 to 12,000 feet off of the road,” he said. “So, if you have a person that lives a mile off the road on his own private property, we’re not necessarily going to build that on our dime back to his house.”
He added Virginia is looking at the language in the line extension program to help with situations like this.
Roach noted that several of his neighbors also have this problem. “So, there’s an entire section that will have to pay for their own lines to be run to their homes under this plan,” he said. “That’s not servicing all.”
Tanck said Spectrum/Charter will be building on public roads with public rights of way. If a home is on private property that goes more than 12,000 feet from the right of way there could be additional charges.
Kurt Bozenmayer, of the Smith River District, said he’s listened to numerous discussions about the future of broadband in the county since moving to the area in 2013. “Several years ago, I attended a presentation by Riverstreet Networks in the high school auditorium where they told us that the cost of broadband infrastructure for the entire county would be in the neighborhood of $70 million, most of which was ostensibly available from the Commonwealth and federal sources,” he said.
Bozenmayer said the presentation omitted mentioning that the cost works out to nearly $4,000 for every man, woman, and child living in the county. He added that he was told that the cost would be around $70 per month per household for internet and phone service.
“Since that time, I have watched Comcast/Xfinity contractors install about one-fourth mile of cable that traverses my property, then the following year remove that same cable, then last year they installed new cable,” he said.
Bozenmayer said he was told by the Xfinity personnel who parked in his driveway to work on the pole behind his garage that when the cable was placed in service that he would have better and cheaper internet and phone service than that available from CenturyLink.
“I called Xfinity and asked to be placed on the list when service was available,” he said. “I received no such call. When I contacted Xfinity online, they told me that my address was ‘invalid.’”
When he called Xfinity and spoke to a representative, Bozenmayer said he was told that Xfinity was not available in his area. “I have since learned that neighbors visible from my yard, a few hundred yards away on either side of our property, have Xfinity service,” he said.
When he called the numbers obtained from those neighbors, Bozenmayer said he was offered Comcast Business service at $272 per month after $7,500 of underground construction, even though the Xfinity cable passes over his garage less than 50 feet from his kitchen window.
Bozenmayer said he called the Xfinity representative to say he was seeking residential service
but was told that business service was less expensive than residential service. The price was dropped to $169 per month. “That’s still over $2,000 per year, and I’m sure there will be many other charges and fees added to the bill if I accept their offer,” he said. “I find this to be absolutely unacceptable.”
Since 2014, Bozenmayer said he’s seen his CenturyLink monthly bill for internet and phone go from $89 per month to $139 per month for the same service with the quality and reliability of both declining.
“Actually, while the ‘package’ price from CenturyLink has only increased, the current bill includes 19 additional line-item charges including sales tax, excise taxes, a ‘property tax recovery fee,’ and a ‘Patrick Right-of-Way fee,’ which I assume is the $1.01 that they charge me per month to allow their cable to cross my property,” he said.
When reviewing the Charter/Spectrum franchise agreement proposal Bozenmayer said he did not see anything that indicated how much of the county they will serve or what the costs are going to be for the consumer.
“I think that these issues should be addressed by the county before allowing another vendor to come in and take out truckloads of money from the Patrick County residents,” he said.
Bozenmayer said that any proposals for utility service licensing, whether landline phone, cell phone, broadband, or other, should be examined to ensure that county residents are widely and adequately served at reasonable prices, and not simply invitations for vendors to come in and maximize their profits at residents’ expense.
“The county has already committed over a million dollars in seed money to advance the broadband program, but the taxpayers don’t seem to get any progress reports on how the program is progressing,” Bozenmayer said, adding that he believes the board should designate a contact in administration who can ask and answer questions.
Tanck said Spectrum/Charter plans to offer the same structure of pricing and packaging in Patrick County as it does across the country. “It’s not locally regulated,” he said. “We have to report to the FCC and under federal law there are requirements that we have to provide services.”