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Leisure World association voices support for OpenBand

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As the Board of Supervisors considers whether to renew a controversial franchise agreement between the county and OpenBand, a broadband telecommunications provider that serves about 4,700 homes in eastern Loudoun County, the board has been bombarded with complaints from homeowners who say they are disappointed with OpenBand’s service. But one homeowners association says it has no complaints.

At a public hearing last month, dozens of residents from communities in Ashburn and Lansdowne spoke before the board, saying that they rarely watch television or use the Internet without a service interruption. No one at the hearing spoke in favor of renewing the agreement.

But a homeowners association from the Leisure World community in Lansdowne wants to make it clear that its residents are “perfectly happy” with the cable and Internet service received through OpenBand, said Alvin Brown, vice president of the Magnolia Condominiums board of directors.

“We are technically savvy, and we do know what is good service for both cable and Internet,” Brown said. He said that his association — which includes 167 units in three low-rise condominium buildings — recently chose to renew its contract with OpenBand for two more years after reviewing competing bids from other service providers. The association has submitted letters to the supervisors in support of the franchise agreement.

“There are communities, including this community, that are totally happy with the service from OpenBand, in contrast to the distorted picture that is coming out of these other communities that are saddled with these long-term contracts,” said Bruce Johnson, a Leisure World resident.

It is a very different viewpoint from those expressed by many residents of Ashburn and Lansdowne neighborhoods where OpenBand has been the sole cable and Internet provider for years, the result of a deal struck when the communities’ homeowners associations were still controlled by developer Van Metre Companies.

In 2001, Van Metre gave OpenBand the exclusive right to lay fiber-optic cables beneath the landscaped grounds of the new communities. In return for OpenBand’s investment of more than $20 million to create the cable infrastructure, a total contract term of more than 60 years was established. As a result of the exclusive property easements established in the contract, competing cable providers, such as Comcast and Verizon, are unable to get access to the property to provide service for homeowners.

Years of complaints and resentment culminated in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria in May, with homeowners from the Southern Walk community in Ashburn alleging that OpenBand’s contract with Van Metre is in violation of federal communications law. Last month, Loudoun County leaders sent a formal request to Virginia State Attorney Ken Cuccinelli II to conduct an antitrust investigation into the company’s business practices.

At the public hearing last month, residents of Southern Walk and Lansdowne complained to county supervisors about frozen or fuzzy TV reception, slow Internet connections and customer service that left much to be desired.

But Brown said that residents represented by his association have had the opposite experience. Any interruptions — including occasional loss of sound or frozen images — have been “exceedingly minor,” he said, and occur only on a “very sporadic basis.”

There have been a few hiccups in service since OpenBand recently switched Leisure World residents from analog to digital cable service, he said, but nothing that compares with the disruptions reported by homeowners in other communities.

“I can’t say it doesn’t exist,” he said of the issues reported in Southern Walk and parts of Lansdowne. “But you have to look at the reasons for that, and I don’t know that OpenBand is the one to blame. . . . It could well be the streaming that’s coming in from the individual channels, and I think that’s something that needs to be looked at very closely.”

When members of his community have experienced problems, the customer service from OpenBand has been “phenomenal,” Brown said.

Johnson agreed: “Their support has been absolutely great. I’ve never come away from a conversation with one of their technicians unsatisfied.”

But not all Leisure World residents, who are represented by five separate homeowners associations, echo the Magnolia Condominium association’s enthusiastic support of OpenBand. Ed Burrow, president of the Potomac Ridge homeowners association at Leisure World, said residents in his association were alarmed by the ongoing battle between OpenWalk and other eastern Loudoun communities, a problem he thinks is exacerbated by the decades-long contract imposed on homeowners there.

Burrow said that his association’s contract with OpenBand comes up for renewal in May and that the association is in the process of taking bids for proposals from other companies.

“I wouldn’t say we have been pleased [with OpenBand’s service], but we have been reasonably satisfied,” he said. “Our concern is that if OpenBand treats those folks the way they’re treating them, then it doesn’t make us feel confident about how they’d treat us in the future.”

One critical distinction between Leisure World and other communities served by OpenBand is the matter of choice, a point emphasized at the public input hearing by John Mileo, vice president of the Lansdowne Village Greens Homeowners Association.

“Remember as you all vote on this issue, you will be doing something that the residents of Southern Walk and Lansdowne do not have the right to do,” he said. “You will be exercising your right to make a choice, yes or no. Give us that same right when it comes to choosing cable TV service.”

The supervisors referred the proposal to the county’s Finance and Government Services committee for further review last month and will take up the issue following their August recess.

OpenBand has filed a motion to dismiss the federal lawsuit. A hearing in the case set for July 22 was rescheduled for Friday.

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