Welcome! This page is about the ArlFiber collective’s campaign to have Arlington County form a broadband authority to convert all or part of its ConnectArlington municipal dark fiber network into a county-wide, fiber-to-the-home community broadband network.
Information on forming a broadband authority:
Why do we need this? | Is this legal? | What is The Virginia Wireless Service Authority Act? | What is a broadband authority? | Are there examples of this in Virginia? | What is dark fiber? | How would the broadband authority interact with the existing ConnectArlington Network? | What is the process for forming a broadband authority? | How long does it take to form a broadband authority? | Who controls the broadband authority? | How will this be financed? | Why Fiber to the Home? | Would a broadband authority enforce net neutrality? | How much would I pay for Internet? | What services would a broadband authority provide? | Won’t 5G make all of this a moot point?
Why Do we need this?
The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the many perils and injustices created by the digital divide in the United States. This divide is largely attributable to our reliance on highly monopolized markets in which investor-owned telecommunication corporations make investment and service decisions based solely on the consideration of profits and shareholder returns. We need a public option that will at once affirm the principle that the internet is a vital utility worthy of public investment and control while creating actual competition and innovation to bring affordable high-speed internet to all residents and businesses currently unserved or underserved by the incumbent telecommunications corporations operating here in Arlington.
Arlington has a substantial digital divide, particularly in the neighborhoods along Columbia Pike. Reporting back in May (2020) by the Washington Post highlighted the difficulties that many low-income families here and throughout Virginia have faced in the wake of the pandemic, while highlighting the fact that state law severely complicates Arlington County’s ability to use its existing broadband assets (in their current legal form) to address the problem. Given all the access problems that have arisen as a result of Arlington Public Schools’ transition to virtual learning, it is imperative that we adopt a comprehensive solution to our digital divide.
Pandemic aside, there is a shocking lack of choice in internet service providers in Arlington County. According to a 2018 report by the Broadband Advisory Committee, 60% of Arlington’s commercial office buildings are still under the monopoly control of the incumbent telephone company, and many residential multi-dwelling units (MDUs) are suffering the same monopoly control by a single provider. This phenomenon is not unique to Arlington. Indeed, the monopolistic structure of the telecommunications industry is what causes the United States to have some of the highest prices in the world for internet service, high-speed or otherwise. By contrast, community networks now have some of the fastest speeds for the lowest prices [PDF], a state of affairs that is annually noted by PC Magazine.
In the early 2010s, Arlington County made the decision to break from its longstanding relationship with Comcast due to dissatisfaction over the costs and quality of their service. It then constructed its own network to provide internet access to all publicly owned buildings. By all accounts, the ConnectArlington network is performing far better than Comcast ever did and has already paid for itself. Despite that, when the pandemic hit and schools closed, Arlington County was forced to pay $500,000 to Comcast to provide free internet service to low-income families through its Internet Essentials plan (which is really slow) because Virginia telecommunications laws bar the County from using its own network to do this (other than setting up wireless hotspots outside the libraries and community centers). And who is responsible for those laws? Comcast (and the other big telecoms), of course. Ironically, however, the big telecoms that are now receiving public subsidies for their low-cost internet subscriptions are the same ones that have fought vigorously to enact legislation in as many states as possible to ban community broadband providers from doing the same in the name of preventing anti-competitive “cross subsidization”. They are also the same ones who, after receiving handsome public subsidies during this period, are now turning around and announcing data caps.
It must be understood by everyone that this Comcast deal is far from ideal. Families that subscribe to their Internet Essentials program face many restrictions in terms of who can use it and how. Moreover, the speeds are only 50 mbps down and 5 mbps up, which many specialists say is simply not adequate for the kind of streaming that kids have to do for school (and parents for work). One can easily contrast this level of service with ConnectArlington’s current project to extend APS wifi to several buildings on Columbia Pike using CBRS. That project is expected to provide students with speeds of at least 45/15 mbps down and up (this project is likely a unique one-off enabled through negotiation with the local telecoms, but it is illustrative of the difference in outcomes when relying on a for-profit entity versus a not-for-profit community entity). Once again, though, even this project is in danger of being shut down by Comcast at any time, since we do not have a public authority providing this service.
Stopgap solutions aside, Arlington does have a way to use its current dark fiber network to bridge the digital divide and provide more options to everyone, which is to form a broadband authority under The Virginia Wireless Service Authority Act (VWSAA) and build an community-owned network that connects to buildings and residences in the county. This broadband authority could provide a fiber-based physical connection to every building and unit of housing in the county that wants it. Moreover, we would urge the Arlington County Board to reach out to their colleagues in Alexandria and City of Falls Church to explore the creation of a regional authority – either at the outset or later down the road.
Is this Legal?
Yes. Multiple cities and counties in Virginia have already formed broadband authorities under the Virginia Wireless Service Authority Act, the most successful examples being the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority and the Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority. The Virginia State Corporation Commission (SCC) affirmed in a case last year that broadband authorities have a right to provide internet service directly to private subscribers and do not need a certificate from the SCC. Moreover, the Virginia Supreme Court gives the SCC the authority to interpret VA law and the intent of legislators, so appeals of that decision are unlikely to go anywhere.
Under VA law there are two ways to form a public telecommunications entity that provides service to private entities (VA law (§§ 15.2-1500 (B) and (C)) allows local governments to build, own, and operate a network like ConnectArlington that provides service only to publicly owned buildings).
One way is under Article 5.1 (Provision of Certain Communications Services), originally enacted in 1999 and located in Title 56 (Public Service Companies). Under this method, Arlington County would have to apply to the SCC for a certificate to be a municipal local exchange carrier, and thus would be subject to all the impositions that the corporate telecoms have concocted to make municipal broadband virtually impossible (for a list of those, click here). Until Arlington County applies for and is granted said certificate (with all its impositions), it cannot legally provide service to private entities using the ConnectArlington municipal network (if the government is acting as the service provider).
The other way is the Virginia Wireless Service Authorities Act, originally enacted in 2003 and located in Title 15.2 (Counties, Cities and Towns). This act allows local governments to form a wireless service authority (i.e. broadband authority), which is free to provide “qualifying communications services”, which include, but are not limited to high speed data and Internet access service (but excludes cable television or video programming). Under this law, public broadband providers are not subject to the impositions of Article 5.1. As ESVBA has proven, a broadband authority is permitted to lay and light fiber to the home and provide internet service directly to customers.
What is the virginia wireless service authority act?
The Virginia Wireless Service Authorities Act (Code of Virginia, §15.2-5431.1 et seq.) was enacted by the Virginia General Assembly in 2003. The Act enables counties, cities and towns in Virginia to form their own Wireless Service Authorities to provide certain communications services, including but not limited to, high speed data and Internet access services.
You can read a detailed FAQ on the VWSAA prepared by Jeffrey S. Gore from Hefty & Wiley, P.C. in 2008 on behalf of the Virginia Association of Counties here.
What is a broadband authority?
A broadband authority is the name typically given to a “Wireless Service Authority” here in Virginia. Wireless Service Authorities are separate, legal entities from the localities that form them. They are similar to other local or regional authorities (waste and water authorities, regional jail authorities, economic or industrial development authorities, etc.). Just like other local authorities, Wireless Service Authorities are public bodies that can enter into contracts, sue and be sued, borrow money, and issue debt to finance their projects. As declared by the legislature, each Wireless Service Authority is an instrumentality of the locality “exercising public and essential governmental functions to provide for the public health and welfare…”
Under Virginia law, a municipality may build and operate a publicly owned (dark fiber) network to provide internet service to publicly owned buildings; however, that network cannot provide service to privately owned buildings without becoming certificated as a municipal local exchange carrier (which is how the County almost got in trouble for its Arlington Mill project). A broadband authority, on the other hand, is legally able to provide internet service itself, as was affirmed by the SCC last year, without all the restrictions that are imposed on the municipal local exchange carrier model. Therefore, an Arlington broadband authority would be able to provide fiber-to-the-home connection to any and all buildings and light that fiber.
It is important to note that Arlington need not go it alone. It could potentially partner with say Falls Church and Alexandria to build a more expansive network and share some of the cost burdens while enjoying greater economies of scale. Alexandria is already planning to build its own version of ConnectArlington, so why not partner with them. The Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority, for instance, is the creation of two counties: Northampton and Accomack.
Are there examples of this in Virginia?
Multiple localities in Virginia have formed broadband authorities. The two most successful cases so far are the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority and the Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority. More recently the Lancaster County Broadband Authority has sought to make major advances in its network and last year five cities of the Hampton Roads region voted to form an authority. Not all localities are using the authority in the same way. Some are doing direct fiber to the home like ESVBA, some are operating as middle mile networks that partner with private providers like RVBA, and at least one or two are just using it to funnel money for individual projects.
Watch this presentation by Executive Director of the Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority Robert Bridgham at our panel discussion last August:
What is dark fiber / a dark fiber network?
While the term “dark fiber” often conjures up notions of sinister hacking technology or the “the dark web”, it actually has nothing to do with any of that. Put simply, dark fiber is pre-existing underground infrastructure that does not yet have the hardware or software that enable it to run services. While fiber optic cables that are actively sending data via light wavelengths are considered lit, the rest of the unused fibers laying in wait are deemed unlit—or dark.
Arlington has a publicly owned dark fiber network called ConnectArlington that was built in the early 2010s. It was originally developed by Arlington County Government to connect all of the County’s facilities and the public school system together using high-speed broad band technology through the use of underground dark (dedicated) fiber. As part of that buildout, the County installed 864 strands of fiber in County-owned conduit, 696 strands of which are available for licenses using the Standard Form Licensing Agreement. Another 168 strands of dark fiber are available for use through a different License Agreement to persons and entities to which the County is permitted by law to make donations and contributions. The County has not been particularly successful at leasing this excess fiber (mostly because of the onerous nature of the licensing agreement), although it recently inked a deal with JBG and AT&T to lease some of the dark fiber in the National Landing area to build a ubiquitous 5G network there and experiment with “smartcity” infrastructure.
How would the broadband authority interact with the existing ConnectArlington Network?
The difference between us and other communities with a broadband authority is that we already have a municipal network that was constructed under a different part of the VA Code (i.e. Article 5.1 – see the Is This Legal section above), whereas those other communities built their networks from scratch using the broadband authority. This means Arlington County would have to decide what assets to deed or sell to the authority from the existing ConnectArlington network (VA law already provides for the transfer of telecommunication assets from one public body to another without a public hearing or bid). Due to certain issues regarding rights of way and how conduits are treated under the VWSAA, we believe that it would be most expedient to transfer the ConnectArlington network in its entirety to the authority so that the latter owns the vital infrastructure outright. The authority could then continue to provide high-speed, high-quality service to public buildings while gradually expanding the network to the entire community.
What is the process for forming a broadband authority?
Forming a broadband authority is a relatively simple affair. In order to form a Wireless Service Authority, the locality (or localities in the case of a joint or regional authority) is required to hold a public hearing on the matter. The governing body must then adopt a formal resolution and file articles of incorporation, which must be approved by the State Corporation Commission. If all the requirements have been met, then the SCC will issue a Certificate of Incorporation or Charter to the Authority. It is important to note that SCC approval is based simply on whether these steps have been followed. Arlington need not reinvent the wheel here. We could simply plagiarize the concurrent resolution passed by Northampton and Accomax counties’ boards.
How long does it take to form a broadband authority?
From full start to finish, the process of forming an authority takes a three to four months maximum. It is important to note, however, that authorities are different from regular corporations in that they technically come into existence upon passage of the resolution by the locality’s governing body. The State Corporation Commission’s (SCC) only role is to register that it happened. The SCC registration has some important legal protections, but, strictly speaking, this is not the event that brings the broadband authority into existence; instead it is the action of the local governing body (in this case the Arlington County Board). In that sense, it actually only takes about a month or two to form an authority. This means that if Arlington had passed a resolution in the spring to form an authority, we would have had one by August or September, in which case we could have been providing direct service to underserved and unserved families using CARES Act money.
Who controls the authority?
The Act requires that each Wireless Service Authority have a board of five members to control the Authority, any number of which can be members of the local governing body if they choose. A board of supervisors creating an Authority can opt to have the number of Authority board members equal to the number of members on the board of supervisors. The Authority board must then appoint a chairman, secretary and treasurer. The Act also allows the board to adopt by-laws to govern the conduct of its meetings and internal business.
Our sources at the successful broadband authorities in VA have told told us that it is imperative that the board have members who are qualified experts with knowledge of telecommunications infrastructure, technology, and law. That said, we believe the governing body of such an authority should include representatives from the community and employees of the authority and that there be criteria for diversity.
How will this be financed?
Wireless Service Authorities can borrow money and issue revenue bonds that do not constitute debt of the local governing body, to finance their projects. In 2007, the Virginia General Assembly added wireless broadband equipment and infrastructure to the definition of projects that may be entered into under the provisions of the Virginia Public-Private Education Facilities and Infrastructure Act (PPEA), and projects that can be financed through the Virginia Resources Authority.
With revenue bonds, the authority would issue bonds to private investors that are repaid over many years with revenues from the network. Fewer than 2% of municipal networks have defaulted on bonds. It is important to emphasize that other community networks have demonstrated an extraordinary return on investment. For instance, an independent study of Chattanooga’s city-owned fiber network recently concluded that it delivered Chattanoogans a $2.69 billion return on investment in its first decade.
There is opportunity for the County to use American Rescue Plan Act funds to jumpstart a community owned network with a few pilot projects. Indeed, the U.S. Treasury’s guidelines encourage localities to provide these funds to not-for-profit entities doing fiber-to-the-home broadband projects.
Why fiber to the home (premises)?
The following is taken from the report “Public Infrastructure/Private Service: A Shared-Risk Partnership Model for 21st Century Broadband Infrastructure“, published by the Benton Institute.
Fiber optics represent the most scalable long-term broadband infrastructure option. For purposes of capacity, reliability, and scalability, fiber-to-the-premises is superior to all other broadband technologies. Despite some industry marketing claims, fiber-to-the-premises is superior to even the best of all theoretical wireless technologies (which, we note, would require a large amount of fiber infrastructure for backhaul).
Cable networks, the most prevalent broadband infrastructure in the United States, are physically capable of providing service that can compete with fiber-to-the-premises in terms of capacity and cost—but cable technology cannot surpass fiber’s capacity. Similarly, wireless technologies cannot approach fiber’s capabilities, despite the current hype over 5G wireless. These new wireless technologies—which may promise far higher bandwidth, ultra-low latency, and the capacity to handle far greater numbers of devices—will require a hybrid of widely deployed fiber to provide backhaul to numerous small cells as well as many more point-to-point and point-to-multipoint wireless components.
But the next-generation wireless services will not be able to compete for speed with fiber all the way to the user—and the wireless technologies will not deliver the promised speeds unless they are supported by extensive fiber optics themselves. Indeed, fiber is one of the few technologies that can legitimately be referred to as “future-proof,” meaning that it will be able to provide customers with better and faster service offerings to accommodate growing demand.
The biggest advantage that fiber offers is bandwidth. A strand of standard single-mode fiber-optic cable has a theoretical physical capacity in excess of 10,000 GHz,4 far in excess of the entire wireless spectrum combined, and thousands of times the capacity of any other type of wired medium, which can be symmetrically allocated between upstream and downstream data flows using off-the-shelf technology.
Further, modern fiber can provide extremely low losses within a wide range of frequencies, or wavelengths, of transmitted optical signals, enabling long-range transmissions. Compared with a signal loss on the order of tens of decibels (dB) over hundreds of feet of coaxial cable, a fiber-optic cable can carry a signal of equivalent capacity over several miles, without amplification, with minimal signal loss.
Moreover, weather and environmental conditions do not cause fiber cables to corrode over time in the way that metallic components can, which means that fiber has lower maintenance costs—and a lifetime of decades if properly maintained.
In short, fiber infrastructure represents a long-term, prudent investment for a public entity with significant potential use and impact.
Would a broadband authority enforce net neutrality?
If the authority controls the infrastructure and leases to third parties to provide service, it could feasibly impose net neutrality and privacy requirements on anyone seeking to provide service. Obviously, as a publicly controlled, public-interest entity, the authority would not be using the revenues it collects to try to lobby Congress or Richmond to erode or eliminate net neutrality or privacy laws. Municipal networks in other parts of the country have proven to be very good on net neutrality and privacy. The ACLU lists the kinds of protections that a good public provider should ensure in this report.
How much would I pay for internet?
At this point, it is impossible to say for certain what prices would look like if Arlington were to form a broadband authority providing service over community owned fiber infrastructure, but for comparison, Verizon Fios costs $90/month for gigabit service. Here are what subscribers in other communities with public networks are paying for symmetrical gig service (and keep in mind, all of these examples are contract-free with no tiered service (throttling) or data caps and represent a fixed price that generally goes DOWN over time).
|Community Network||Cost per month for symmetrical gigabit|
|Next Light – Longmont, CO||$69.99|
|FairlawnGig – Fairlawn, OH||$75.00|
|Ammon Fiber – Ammon, ID||$48.49|
|Cedar Falls Utility – Cedar Falls, IA||$76.50|
|EPB – Chattanooga, TN||$67.99|
|Whip City Fiber – Western Mass.||$85.00|
|Connexion – Fort Collins, CO||$59.95|
|HiLight – Hillsboro, OR||$55.00|
Watch this presentation by national expert on community broadband Christopher Mitchell on the benefits of community broadband for economic development:
What services would a broadband authority provide?
The Virginia Wireless Service Authorities Act stipulates that broadband authorities can provide data services, excluding television. What this means is that it would be able to provide high-speed internet services and phone, but not cable TV. This means that you would have to get/use a separate streaming device (e.g. Roku, firestick, or smart TV) to stream television programs and movies using the internet service provided by the broadband authority.
Won’t 5G make all of this a moot point?
Contrary to 5G industry hype, fiber to the home/premises remains the gold standard in telecommunications. As was discussed in the section above on “Why Fiber to the Home?“, fiber optic connections to homes and businesses allow for virtually unlimited capacity – a single strand of fiber, even now, can support 90,000 TV channels. Moreover, optical fiber is considered to be future-proof: once the fiber is in the ground, its capacity can be upgraded by just swapping out the electronics in the network. Lastly, 5G technology depends on fiber to provide backhaul (and arguably front haul) for the small antenna infrastructure that enables the kind of 5G networks that the big telecoms envision.