After almost a year of tireless advocacy, ArlFiber has finally netted a tangible win in its campaign for community broadband for Arlington. Yesterday (Tuesday, April 20), the Arlington County Board passed their budget for 2022, which includes $50,000 for a feasibility study on forming a broadband authority:
The backstory to this achievement is that members of ArlFiber met with the County Manager Mark Schwartz a few months back to discuss the possibility of forming an authority to start building a publicly owned fiber-to-the-home network. Suffice it to say, the County Manager was open to the idea, but slightly skeptical that such a network would be successful. Ultimately he asked us to show him some examples of cities that have done this that really looked like us; e.g. urban but without a public electric utility and with two entrenched incumbent internet service providers.
Given that criteria, we were hard-pressed to produce an abundance of examples, since the bigger cities like Chattanooga that have a successful public network deployed it through their electric utility, whereas many others are much smaller or more rural than Arlington and only had one major incumbent (usually a cable company without a fiber-to-the-home network). We compiled a list, but were not entirely satisfied with it. But then, lo and behold, the closest apples-to-apples example that we have ever seen emerged on the community broadband horizon: Hillsboro, Oregon.
Hillsboro is situated just outside of Portland and has a tech heavy business environment. While its population is smaller (105K), its size (25 sq miles) and demographic make-up (tech, higher degree holders) are similar. Moreover, they have two established incumbents: Comcast and Ziply Fiber (the latter having been spun off the now defunct Frontier). Like Arlington, Hillsboro already owned fiber optic resources that it used for municipal facilities, schools, traffic signals, and other purposes. In 2018 they formed a new communications utility to establish a fund and execute a dig-once policy for installing conduit in new construction areas (something that we have been doing for almost a decade). Now, after much study and planning, Hillsboro is finally executing fiber-to-the-home/premises buildouts in two separate neighborhoods as an expansion of the local government/school network. Of particular note is that one of the two pilot communities is a low-income area, where they will set a up a “bridge” program to provide $10/month gigabit FTTH connections to these households (utilizing a network of non-profits to do the verification and digital literacy work). For regular residential customers, Hilight is charging only $55/month for symmetrical gigabit service and even offers 2 ($125/m), 3 ($200/m), and 4 ($300/m) gig service. The public network offers VOIP and internet, but not video (which is what an Arlington Broadband authority would do, since state law prohibits broadband authorities from providing video service).
We forwarded the news about Hillsboro to the County Manager, and Department of Technology Services (DTS) staff quickly set up a meeting with HiLight principals Greg Mont and Brad Nosler (ArlFiber had a separate meeting with them). We then sent our notes to County Board members Matt de Ferranti and Takis Karantonis and scheduled a meeting with them. At that meeting, Matt and Takis agreed that a feasibility study made sense, and had us go back to Hillsboro to get information on their RFP and the cost, which was $50,000 and performed by a consultant called Uptown, so that became the magic number.
To be clear, this money for a feasibility study is just the beginning and hardly guarantees that the County will move forward with forming an authority and use it to build a publicly owned fiber-to-the-home network. We need to get the RFP right so that we ask the right questions and get a good consultant with a proven track record (and this feasibility study may only be the preface to other more thorough and expensive studies). Nevertheless, it’s an essential first step and the first real indication to us that certain Board members are genuinely interested in solving the digital divide through decisive public action and long-term, strategic planning.
If the feasibility study comes back with positive results and Arlington County is able to move forward on planning and even initial deployment, we will be well poised to take advantage of any federal money that comes out of President Biden’s infrastructure plan. In case you haven’t read that, here is what is being proposed:
Revitalize America’s digital infrastructure:
The President believes we can bring affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband to every American through a historic investment of $100 billion. That investment will:
- Build high-speed broadband infrastructure to reach 100 percent coverage. The President’s plan prioritizes building “future proof” broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas so that we finally reach 100 percent high-speed broadband coverage. It also prioritizes support for broadband networks owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments, non-profits, and co-operatives—providers with less pressure to turn profits and with a commitment to serving entire communities. Moreover, it ensures funds are set aside for infrastructure on tribal lands and that tribal nations are consulted in program administration. Along the way, it will create good-paying jobs with labor protections and the right to organize and bargain collectively.
It is not a foregone conclusion that the infrastructure bill will come out of the sausage making process entirely intact, but if a fraction of the above gets through, there is going to be a mad dash by localities to acquire personnel, equipment, etc. to start building broadband infrastructure. It would be wise to get out ahead.