©2014 Rob Rogers. Reprinted with permission.

At its Recessed Meeting last night, the Arlington County Board may have taken a tiny step forward toward community broadband.

Background:

Before we dive into that, though, first some background. ArlFiber has been advocating for and exploring the implementation of community broadband in Arlington and Virginia for about the last year and half. While we were making some modest progress on a coop project, the pandemic made us realize that a bunch of amateur activists with no technical expertise or ready-access to capital was not going to make this happen on the scale and at the speed necessary to ameliorate the crisis and put us on a fundamentally different path for the future.

As such, we switched gears and began advocating for the County Board to form a broadband authority, which for all intents and purposes is a legal entity that allows local governments to provide service to private entities. Our view is that an authority could utilize the existing dark fiber network to provide service directly to underserved areas (in the short term through fixed wireless solutions and in the long term with fiber to the home), with an eye to eventually offering service to the whole community. In any event, we a saw this as a much better option than paying Comcast indefinitely for its Internet Essentials package with its woefully inadequate 25/3 mbps service and the resort to inefficient/inequitable hotspots and mifis (we are not criticizing the County government on this – they have definitely done a lot to make the best of a bad situation).

We started off this journey by launching a petition and working with the Arlington Dems’ Black Caucus to organize a forum on municipal broadband and the digital divide this past August, which was attended by a goodly number of residents, including member of the county board. In light of the positive response we got re: the forum and the jump in petition signatures, we thought it was time to take it to Board. After gathering what we felt like was sufficient information to make a strong pitch, we asked the board members for a meeting in mid September.

Suffice it to say, the two board members in attendance were more than a bit skeptical, but the reservations they expressed during the meeting prompted us to do some more digging. We were able to connect with a number of officials working at existing broadband authorities and some lawyers that advise them. They provided a lot of useful information, which we were then able to impart on the next set of board members with whom we met (fun fact: you can’t gather all the board members together to talk without making it a public meeting). Since we had our act together a bit more, the second meeting with board members was more productive and led to a sustained dialogue, whereby we were able to exchange information back and forth as we collected it.

While we were blissfully plodding along under the assumption that we might be on a path to an community-wide public option for the internet, last week we suddenly got word that the Board was moving forward on a feasibility study, which seemed to propose using a non-profit to provide free internet to committed affordable housing units. Moreover, it was a consent agenda item for Saturday’s Regular Meeting, which meant there would be no public comments and just the usual rubber stamp. This sent us scrambling to find out more information and put in calls with staff and contact some board members to ask them to pull it from the consent agenda so we would have more time to consider it. Fortunately, it was pulled, which gave us time to digest it and consider what it would mean for our more grandiose agenda of a community-wide public option.

Consent Agenda Item #34

That takes us to the matter at hand. At the Recessed Meeting this past Tuesday night (October 20), the Arlington County Board had a hearing on Consent Agenda Item #34. What was to be discussed was whether the County should spend $60,000 of Pay as You Go funds to conduct a feasibility study on using the County’s existing dark fiber to provide high-speed, reliable service to residents in two affordable housing complexes (Gates of Ballston and Arlington View Terrace). The feasibility study, to be carried out by New Urbana, is aimed at doing a deep dive into the technological aspects of providing different types of connection to residents in the building, how much the different options would cost, and how long it would take to deploy them. As part of the feasibility study, New Urbana is supposed to identify a potential third party non-profit provider to implement (and replicate elsewhere) this project based on the results of the study.

In response to this, ArlFiber sent an SOS to its burgeoning network of supporters to ask for people to sign up to make public statements. Our goal was not to torpedo the initiative, but simply to ask the Board to think bigger than providing service to committed affordable units (CAFs), since the digital divide in Arlington goes well beyond the residents of those buildings. Moreover, we believe that any strategic initiative involving extending broadband infrastructure to the community should be focused on separating infrastructure from services. Regardless, we ultimately agreed with staff that this study would provide some crucial data that could inform a larger strategic vision for building a genuine public option for the whole community.

Public Comment:

We managed to marshal eight speakers from various backgrounds who all delivered diverse messages – without any prior coordination of those messages! You can watch a clip of the public comments here:

Synopses/key points from the speakers:

  1. Kathy Scruggs (text here): Retired Arlington teacher who is part of a group called “Abuelitas” with other retired teachers to tutor English language learners. Students mostly only have a phone to connect. 750 families with students are still being denied the right to a free public education. This study is too little too late. Asks what will be done but what about small businesses and first-generation college students? Calls for the board to form a broadband authority.
  2. Jeanine Brundage: Retired Arlington teacher working with “Abuelitas” to tutor elementary school English language learners, tells the board about the difficulties her students have getting online and using APS’s multi-layered onion of portals and programs for remote learning without reliable internet access. Applauds Board for steps taken, but calls for a more comprehensive, sustainable, long-term solution; i.e. a broadband authority to connect everyone.
  3. Charles Head (text here): Arlington resident with an interest in computers. Tells the Board that the U.S. is already paying the highest prices for internet in the world, which in Arlington has produced a digital divide whereby 10-16% of households cannot afford to connect. Broadband access is no longer a luxury, but an essential utility. Our duopoly market holds us hostage and this won’t change if decisions are left to private enterprise. Other localities have shown the value of a public provider via broadband authorities. Calls on Board to get the facts on authorities and to consider them as part of this study.
  4. Tim Dempsey (text here): Speaking on behalf of ArlFiber. Explains that pandemic inspired group to call for an authority. Approves of feasibility study as a way to provide crucial data for more strategic decisions. Calls on county board to expand the study to explore broadband authority as a possible service provider or conduct a separate study looking at whether an authority could build a county-wide, fiber-to-the-home, open access, software defined network to separate public infrastructure from private service, referencing the “Ammon model”.
  5. Detta Kissel (text here): Arlington resident. Reminds Board that ten years ago they made a fateful decision to break from Comcast to build their own network which now provides them superior service and has saved them millions of dollars. What about the rest of us?! Tells Board we are at a crossroads in deciding our internet future, and it would make more sense to form a broadband authority and create a community-wide option rather than continue to rely on reactive, piecemeal solutions.
  6. Jeff Elkner (text here): Arlington Mill resident and IT teacher at Career Center. Even before the pandemic, his students with less internet access were at a disadvantage. Much worse now. Inequality in general is growing and at historic heights. Relying on “the market” and “the private sector” will not solve these problems. Regrets that the Board has rolled over for the biggest tech oligarch in the country. We need to rely on ourselves as a community which means a community-owned and community-wide solution: a broadband authority.
  7. Dan Shuhler (text here): Arlington resident. Relays his experience of living in apartment buildings in Arlington where he had no choice for internet because one ISP had a building-wide monopoly. Tells the board that he did not know just how bad he was being ripped off till he attended the ArlFiber/Arl Dems forum. Based on the prices cited by the Eastern Shore of VA Broadband Authority and the Ammon, ID municipal network, he estimates he would have saved $12,600 over that time.
  8. Caroline Corum: Arlington resident. Tells Board that her telecom bill is her biggest monthly expense. Internet is an essential service to help people access various services and information – jobs, health care, etc. Calls on board to form an authority that treats internet as a essential utility.
  9. Terry Bratt (letter here): Not a speaker but submitted letter. Long time educator and Arlington resident. Pandemic’s silver lining is that it shone a light on digital divide that was so bright that it could no longer be ignored. Writes that this feasibility study is a step in the right direction, but the goal needs to be much broader to include many others suffering from insufficient access or high costs. Calls for a broadband authority.

Board discussion:

After a brief interlude to discuss a different pulled consent agenda item, the Board heard from staff on the proposed digital equity project (Item #34), after which a fairly lengthy discussion ensued.

While we provide a rough summary of the various participants’ comments below, the main point we’d like to make is that the County Manager and the Board members were forced to address and make continual reference to the broadband authority as an idea, while also acknowledging that having only two internet providers for Arlington (i.e. a “duopoly”) produces bad outcomes for consumers (and as resident Dan Shuhler pointed out above, many apartment buildings only have one choice, whereas board member Matt de Ferranti implies that even two choices is fairly meaningless). That said, some highlights and our responses in italics:

After Mr. Halewski’s presentation on the proposal, County Manager Schwartz remarks that we should not get hung up on the question of what “vehicle” (broadband authority [BBA] or non-profit) we use for executing this project and bridging the digital divide. He then calls on the county attorney Steve MacIsaac to explain what a BBA could offer and some of the “benefits and detriments of that”, which Mr. MacIsaac punts to the deputy county attorney MinhChau Corr. Ms. Corr then proceeds to explain that BBAs are a “legal construct” whose legitimacy is not in doubt, but opines that, while this study does not preclude the creation of a BBA, it is inappropriate for a small scale project like the one being proposed because there are “liability issues” and that forming an authority would not answer questions about the costs of connection and ongoing operations.

ArlFiber in its conversations with the board has repeatedly stressed the need to form an authority to do small scale projects to test the waters toward a more comprehensive network. Forming an authority is a fairly quick and easy affair. Most are formed and approved by the SCC in three or four months (as a technical matter, authorities are different from regular corporations in that they technically come into existence upon passage of the resolution by the locality’s governing body. All the SCC does is register that it happened. The SCC registration has some important legal protections, but it isn’t the event that brings the entity into existence; that is the action of the local governing body (board of supervisors or city council)). Several localities have formed authorities and put them on the shelf for a while, or just used them off and on for occasional projects where local governments wanted to extend from a public facility to a nearby public housing area with just a few units. Middlesex County, for example, just uses its as a conduit for state grants and occasional local government public-private partnerships of various types. The Board’s current project is by no means free of “liability issues”, since the two buildings under consideration are already served by Comcast who will not take kindly to the County subsidizing a third party to provide additional service to said buildings. Lastly, throughout the proceedings, there were multiple references to the complexities of operating a public network, yet the head of ConnectArlington, Jack Belcher, was never called on to comment on this issue.

Mark Schwartz responds that he understands that there is a harmful duopoly situation in the Arlington telecom market, but he then goes on to explain that certain broadband infrastructure (“blasters”) has been put into place in areas along Columbia Pike to boost existing hotspot signals, which cost a million dollars or more; therefore, one should not assume that having a broadband authority would be cheaper or easier.

While we do not pretend to have any technical expertise in these matters, ArlFiber has only ever asserted that having a broadband authority would allow the county to use its existing fiber assets to provide service directly to certain customers or buildings (which it currently cannot do), which is a slightly different proposition than increasing the range of general hotspot signals. The current study should actually help determine some of the technical aspects and financial costs of that, albeit without studying possibly vehicles for implementing it (like a broadband authority).

Board member reactions:

– Matt: in support of this proposal because it does not foreclose on the possibility of a broadband authority and will help us better understand the technical and financial implications of such an approach;

– Christian: appreciates the speakers who came out to support expansion of internet access, appreciates the mention of the broader problem of internet affordability, acknowledges that there is a duopoly in the Arlington market; the question is not whether we can do “it” (community broadband), but the most “efficacious” way to do it;

– Takis: appreciates that the study will provide crucial information on how we might provide this as a utility, asks 1) why these two properties were chosen, 2) why New Urbana was chosen, 3) what the focus of the study will be in terms of connecting (wired vs wireless), and 4) what will be the next step (answers: 1 – variety of building types and distance from the county’s dark fiber, 2 – recommended by Connected DMV, 3 – will look at different types of connection like FTTH and fixed wireless and price points, 4 – study to be finished by end of November, discussion with community, speakers from tonight) ;

-Katie: appreciates that the study will give an idea of the cost of different options, emphasizes that this is not the “alpha and omega” of the County’s thinking on solutions (i.e. it is supposed to be “scalable”), credits ArlFiber for raising broader issues of affordability and accessibility, asks whether people who can afford internet on the “private market” are interested in a different option provided by an authority, this will come down to cost and the product on offer, admits that, due to her exclusive focus on lower income demographics, she would not have otherwise considered broader community, so this study may help guide that discussion, excited to expand this beyond just families with students.

-Matt: asks for clarification of how long the study will actual take given the reference to 12 months in certain parts of the agreement (deputy county attorney explains that this is pro forma, contractor asserts it will be done in 6 weeks). Matt makes reference to duopoly that served his last apartment building, makes reference to the problem of privately owned infrastructure;

– Christian: asks New Urbana president Costello about future projections of costs (Costello responds that technology is changing, possible to do fixed wireless with fiber backhaul, you will not have “end all, be all” for 15-20 years);

– Libby: we all think internet should be a utility like water and electricity. Concludes discussion and calls for a vote, which passes.

Conclusions:

It simply is not possible for us to convey what a sea change we saw in the discussion that night. The previous skepticism that we had heard in previous conversations had morphed into a low key acceptance of the broadband authority as a legitimate path to these goals and the non-student divide as an equally pressing issue.

While the future of broadband in Arlington is still uncertain, we take pride in the fact that we have at least changed the conversation and planted some seeds in the minds of our local officials. We are excited to learn the results of this feasibility study, but ultimately want this data to inform a more strategic initiative that not only considers the entire county but adjacent “political subdivisions” that might want to be part of a regional broadband authority that builds out fiber to the home/premises to all homes and housing units, while allowing private providers compete over virtual networks to provide service.

Lastly, it is important to note that, during the current crisis, fixed wireless solutions may be the most cost efficient and expedient way to provide service, but the ultimate goal of any true community broadband project should be fiber to the home. Fiber is future-proof and is best able to deliver high-speed service.

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