We need your help tomorrow (Tuesday, October 20) at the Arlington County Board Recessed Meeting at 6:30 p.m.
The County Board will be considering a consent agenda item on whether to conduct a feasibility study on using the ConnectArlington network to provide free service to residents of two committed affordable housing complexes.
We support this measure, BUT we want to call on the County Board to expand the study to investigate whether a broadband authority could serve as the vehicle for executing this project (and eventually going beyond the CAFs to providing service to the entire community).
We need concerned community members to sign up to speak at the meeting and call on the board to think big and pursue a comprehensive solution for the entire community: a public internet option.
Here is a link to the agenda for the county board’s recessed meeting:
It is Item 34: “Allocation of Digital Equity Fund funds and approval of a grant agreement with the New Urbana Institute for the completion of a feasibility study for a non-profit high-speed internet service provider serving two affordable housing complexes, Gates of Ballston, 4108 4th St. N. and Arlington View Terrace, 1429 S. Rolfe St.”
The hearings on consent agenda items begin at 6:30 p.m. Item 34 is second on the list, so they could get to it as early as 6:45 p.m. (depends on how long it takes to get through the first item).
Here is the link to the Board Report (with copy of scope of work and other signature pages):
The link to sign up to speak at the Recessed Meeting is here:
You have to reference the Item number (#34) in your request to speak form and it will give you the opportunity to upload your statement. Once you have submitted a request to speak, you should receive a link to join the Microsoft Teams conference call (you can either download the app for this or open it up in Microsoft Edge browser – or Safari if you have a Mac). Check your spam folder, since many communications from county email addresses end up in for some reason (at least for me).
For consent agenda items, the time limit for speaking is 3 minutes. Be sure to be respectful and thank them for the work they have done on this already.
Before the current pandemic began, Arlington had a serious digital divide. County staff estimated that this was 10% of households and in a new report published in August it estimated this could be up to 16% based on Census data. These households are primarily low-income ($75K or less) and are disproportionately people of color (Black, Latinx, (immigrants) and English Learners. The current economic crisis has likely increased the number of people without access. Attempts by the County and School Boards to fix this (public hotspots, take home hotspots (“mifis”), subsidized subscriptions to Comcast’s Internet Essentials service) are commendable but still falling short. APS staff are acknowledging that while 97% of students are connecting, a sizable number are still having trouble. In addition to the lack of access and its disproportionate impact on low-income residents (of color and English Learners), there is insufficient competition in the internet service provider market. For instance, the County’s Broadband Advisory Committee noted in their 2017 report that 60% of commercial buildings in the County have only one choice for provider (Verizon). This de facto monopoly results in high prices and lackluster service for everyone. In a recent study of the world broadband market, researchers at The Open Technology Institute stated bluntly that the monopolized market structure of telecommunications in the U.S. is the reason Americans pay the highest costs for internet service in the world. Adding insult to injury, these telecommunication corporations use the considerable revenues derived from this monopoly pricing to lobby at the federal level against consumer protections like net neutrality.
In the early 2010s, Arlington County made the wise decision to end its relationship with Comcast and build its own public fiber optic network (ConnectArlington), which currently provides internet access to county owned buildings (e.g. county offices, schools, community centers). This network is extremely state of the art and delivers speeds of 10 gbps download and upload. Unfortunately, despite having this amazing existing asset, the part of the state law under which it was formed makes it difficult and needlessly complicated for the County to try to use its public network to provide service directly to private entities.
As a result, they are looking for ways to use the network to provide service to low-income families and bridge the digital divide as quickly as possible. Their current approach, on which they will be voting this coming Tuesday, is to pay a consultant to produce a feasibility study on how the County’s existing dark fiber could be used to connect and provide free service to residents of two committed affordable housing complexes (owned by AHC, Inc.) and how much the different options would cost, while also identifying a third party that could potentially implement it based on the results of the study.
ArlFiber’s immediate position on the proposed feasibility study is as follows:
1) expand this study to investigate whether a broadband authority can be used as a possible vehicle for executing this project; or
2) conduct a more comprehensive and strategic study that assesses the possibility of building a county-wide, fiber-to-the-premises, open access network using a broadband authority as the vehicle.
Our overall position is that the County should form a broadband authority under the Virginia Wireless Service Authority Act and transfer the existing ConnectArlington network over to the authority and have the authority provide service directly to whomever it wants and to whomever wants it. Other localities in Virginia are already doing this and the State Corporation Commission has approved it. Moreover, we are advocating that the broadband authority create a fiber to the premises/home, open access, software defined network that separates infrastructure from service. Under this model, the broadband authority would own, maintain, and operate the physical infrastructure of the network, but use software defined networks to allow private companies to compete to provide service. This model was invented by the city government of Ammon, Idaho and has led to a precipitous drop in the cost of high-speed internet there, so much so that Ammon is now one of the cheapest internet service providers in the world(!).