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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)

Lansdowne, outside Leesburg, also has a contract with OpenBand. Toll Brothers, the developer of Belmont Country Club in Ashburn, wired each lot to a fiber-optic network and set up a subsidiary, Advanced Broadband, to handle Internet, cable and phone service for the residents.

Other neighborhoods started with similar plans, but resident frustrations persuaded them to abandon the contracts.

In 1995, the South Riding development set up a 10-year deal with a local cable company, which is now Cox, to provide cable service to each home. Back then, signing the contract was the only way to get telecom companies to build expensive networks out to what used to be farmland, said Stephanie Smith, president of South Riding's board of directors.

Two years ago, when the contract expired, "it was clear that people wanted to make their own choice, so we didn't renew" the contract, she said.

Brambleton, located just off the Dulles Toll Road, hired Verizon in 2001 to wire 1,800 homes with fiber-optic cable. It then struck a deal with Gatehouse, a small Delaware company, to provide the services.

Within three years, service hiccups caused an uproar from residents. In protest, many installed satellite dishes on their roofs -- a violation of community beautification standards -- and started online forums to voice their frustration. Last year, Brambleton switched back to Verizon, which had nearly finished building its fiber-optic network in the area.

Not all homeowners are disappointed. Lori Waters, a member of Loudoun County's Board of Supervisors, bought a house in Lansdowne specifically to take advantage of the built-in Internet and cable. Her assistant, Danny Davis, moved into Southernwalk for the same reason. Both say they are satisfied with OpenBand's services.

"Yes, I realize there are frustrations, but [residents] signed the papers when they moved in," Waters said. "They knew the arrangement."

Roy Barnett, a senior vice president with Van Metre, said the vocal dissenters are a "select group" and that "progress has been made in addressing glitches in the system."

Under the contract, Van Metre receives between 8 and 12 percent of the revenue OpenBand receives from residents.

"This is not onerous or unusual," he said. "It was a business decision on OpenBand's part to invest millions of dollars in infrastructure to service the area. We need to give them some assurance they will get an economic return on that investment."

OpenBand suggested those unhappy with service are a minority and noted that a recent Southernwalk survey revealed a 79 percent customer approval rating for its overall value last year. Sharon Hawkins, a spokeswoman for the company, said OpenBand brought fiber to Loudoun County "five years in advance of any other providers."

OpenBand's contracts with developers "created a competitive landscape which helped drive the county's current level of fiber build-out," she said in an e-mail.

In Southernwalk, some residents are ramping up their campaign against OpenBand and Van Metre. They've pooled their money to hire a lawyer, and satellite dishes -- a total of 235, by a reporter's count -- continue to crop up on the horizon. Homeowners association meetings have rarely been so well attended.

Staff writer Sandhya Somashekhar contributed to this report.

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