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It’s time for Arlington County to form a broadband authority
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that the digital divide in our country is a national emergency. The mass transition to online work and communication rapidly split us all up into internet haves and have nots. This was most starkly highlighted in the education arena as students were taken out of classrooms and forced to attend class and complete assignments online. Here in Arlington, given what the county already knew about the state of connectivity in many of its poorest neighborhoods, this was inevitably going to produce unjust outcomes for the many students who lack access to high-speed internet and/or the proper devices at home. The recent announcement by the superintendent of APS that the fall semester will be conducted online means that this will be an ongoing problem. We applaud the County Board and APS for their efforts to address this problem through hotspots at public buildings, take-home devices, and the expansion of Comcast Internet Essentials to the neediest families, but all of these approaches leave much to be desired. We need a better, long-term solution to this seemingly intractable problem.
Arlington County should use its existing dark fiber network to ensure that all members of the public in Arlington have adequate, affordable access to the internet. Arlington County currently has a dark fiber network that it uses to provide high-speed internet connection to county-owned buildings and facilities. It is this network that has been utilized to set up the public hotspots that students and others have used to access the internet during the pandemic. Existing telecommunication laws in Virginia bar the county from using this network to provide internet access directly to non-publicly owned buildings and residences. Fortunately, there is a workaround: The Virginia Wireless Service Authority Act. This law allows cities and counties (individually or in combination) to establish a “wireless service authority” that, despite the name, would allow the county to provide wireline fiber-to-the-premises connection to any building it desires. This would have to operate as a non-discriminatory open access network, but that in itself could open up robust competition with the help of software defined networks. Several cities and counties have already used this law to establish their own “wireless service authorities”, with the most advanced and successful examples being in Roanoke Valley and on the Eastern Shore.
Establishing a broadband authority will take time, so the County Board should begin to act immediately. Arlington County decided several years ago to sever its relationship with Comcast and provide service to its own buildings through a municipal network, which has not only saved us money, but improved service as well. Its residents should equally not have to rely on monopolistic, shareholder-owned corporations for their internet service (who, by the way, spend our money lobbying against things like net neutrality and privacy). This pandemic has made it clear that we must treat the internet as a public, not-for-profit utility that is available to everyone at home at a price they can afford (preferably free for the lowest income families). Even after the pandemic is over and children are once again in the classroom, the digital divide will continue to haunt us in myriad other ways. Let’s fix it once and for all with a public option.
ArlFiber began as a community effort to create a multistakeholder cooperative internet service provider for south Arlington that would lease redundant fibers from ConnectArlington to provide high-speed internet for small businesses and committed affordable housing projects along Columbia Pike and in Green Valley. We are now focused on creating a broadband authority for Arlington. Learn more at https://arlfiber.org/arlington-broadband-authority/