In Suburbs, Locked Into a High-Tech Lure

Erika Hodell-Cotti and others in Southernwalk want out of a contract for OpenBand services arranged by a builder. (By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)
By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 21, 2007

On a quiet cul-de-sac in Southernwalk, an upscale Loudoun County neighborhood, the fiber-optic cables beneath the manicured lawns were once a source of technological pride. Now they're a source of headaches.

Seven years ago, the neighborhood's homeowners association, set up by the developer Van Metre Homes, inked an exclusive deal with OpenBand, a small Dulles firm, to provide Internet, cable and phone service to all 1,100 homes. Residents say they are now locked into an expensive, decades-long contract for second-rate services.

Erika Hodell-Cotti, who lives on Sunstone Court, says she cannot work from home because her Internet connection frequently fizzles out. The teenagers who live next door play online Xbox games at friends' houses where speeds are faster. Dozens of neighbors have installed satellite dishes on their roofs and backyard decks, fed up with cable channels that sometimes dissolve into snowy static.

Just a few years ago, developers lured homebuyers to the outer suburbs with the promise of lightning-fast Internet access and high-definition television to go along with Olympic-size swimming pools, tennis courts and other amenities.

Residents bragged about not just keeping up with their inner-suburb neighbors but leapfrogging them altogether -- only to watch their technological advantage give way to newer offerings.

What was once state of the art is now par for the course, a frustration familiar to any early adopter who has bought the latest and greatest only to find something better, or cheaper, soon after. For Southernwalk, the price of chasing Internet Nirvana turned out to be a contract that could run 75 years.

About 40 fuming residents recently attended a neighborhood meeting to blast OpenBand for services they call, among other things, unreliable and overpriced. They also directed their ire at Van Metre. When they moved in, residents agreed to pay a fee, now $149, for the services as part of their monthly homeowners association fees.

"It was the only way to get Internet out here back then, so the concept seemed like a good idea," said Hodell-Cotti, who moved into the neighborhood with her husband four years ago. She recently bought a satellite dish for better reception, but she still pays the mandatory fee for OpenBand services. "Now there are more options out there, but we're stuck in a monopoly."

OpenBand has the right to renew the contract with the homeowners association for up to 75 years, but some residents say they should be able to choose their own service provider.

Murali Pavuloori, who works on computer networks for a living, moved into the neighborhood three years ago in part because he wanted Internet speeds often reserved for huge corporations. He doesn't mind the slower connection as much as he does the high fees.

"It's a total rip-off," he said during a meeting with neighbors. "Everybody bought into the promises they [OpenBand] can't keep."

Southernwalk is not the only Loudoun suburb to dangle broadband amenities in front of tech-savvy homebuyers.

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