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In Suburbs, Locked Into a High-Tech Lure
Fiber-Optic Service Disappoints Many, but Contracts Span Decades

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.

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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