Supervisors defer action on OpenBand franchise to November

October 17, 2011

A resolution to the lengthy process surrounding broadband cable provider OpenBand’s controversial franchise agreement with Loudoun County might be imminent: At a public hearing Tuesday, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors scheduled the matter for action at a business meeting early next month.

At least four supervisors — Stevens Miller (D-Dulles), James Burton (I-Blue Ridge), Andrea McGimsey (D-Potomac) and Kelly Burk (D-Leesburg — appear poised to vote against renewing the cable operator’s franchise agreement with the county. But the board determined that there are unanswered questions about the legal and logistical implications of denying the agreement and voted to delay action until county staff members could address those issues.

Residents of several eastern Loudoun communities served by OpenBand — including Southern Walk at Broadlands, Lansdowne on the Potomac and Lansdowne Village Green — have complained about the company’s service for years. The complaints escalated this year, as county leaders examine the possibility of renewing a franchise agreement with the Dulles-based company.

The controversy has centered around the legality of contracts created a decade ago between OpenBand and the communities’ developers. In exchange for OpenBand’s investment in the development of a fiber-optic cable infrastructure in the subdivisions, OpenBand was given sole cable access to the properties. Homeowners associations have complained that the exclusive property easements established by those agreements have made it impossible for competing cable companies to provide service in their neighborhoods.

The Southern Walk and Lans-downe on the Potomac homeowners associations filed separate lawsuits in U.S. District Court in August, claiming that the contracts are in violation of federal antitrust law. The Board of Supervisors also sent a request to Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) in June, asking him to conduct an antitrust investigation into OpenBand’s business practices. At Tuesday’s meeting, county staff members said that Cuccinelli’s office did not yet have a preliminary response to the request.

Benjamin Young, director of government affairs for OpenBand, presented a statement to the board Tuesday, emphasizing that the company has passed technical tests “with flying colors” and proved itself to be reliable and inexpensive in county studies.

Some supervisors had voiced confusion about the discrepancy between the results of the county’s technical audit and the complaints of residents served by OpenBand, a matter that Young addressed directly.

“You may ask, ‘How do I reconcile this independent and objective information with the complaints of a dedicated group of residents who will again testify before this board?’ ” Young said. “We suggest that a good start is accepting that there are no perfect cable companies.”

Any cable operator experiences service disruptions and is subject to complaints, Young said.

“It would appear that to this small group of residents, no amount of objective analysis is sufficient to change their opinion or to halt what has become a taxpayer-funded vendetta against OpenBand,” he said.

More than a dozen residents of Southern Walk addressed the board after Young’s presentation and urged the supervisors to deny OpenBand’s franchise agreement with the county. Several asked county leaders not to worry about what might happen should OpenBand cease providing service if the agreement were denied.

“Let OpenBand pull the plug. It is the HOA’s responsibility to secure video services for our homeowners,” said Erika Hodell-Cotti, president of the Southern Walk at Broadlands homeowners association. She said the association has found a significantly less expensive video solution with DirecTV.

Cotti also asked the board to penalize OpenBand for operating beyond the expiration of its franchise agreement more than two years ago.

“This board has the authority to levy a $500-a-day fine,” she said. “This board needs to use this as leverage. Start levying the fine and continue to fine them until they come back to the negotiating table.”

OpenBand rejected the board’s most recent proposed amendments to the draft agreement, which would shorten the term to two years and add a termination clause. Young said that the company would “be happy to sit down and keep talking” with the county, but it wasn’t clear whether the company would respond to the board’s request for open market competition.

“Can you bring me some way, any plan at all, that will give my neighbors access to service from your competitors?” Miller asked Young.

“I don’t know if I can answer that for you,” Young said.

Caitlin Gibson covers Loudoun County for The Washington Post.
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