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 an open access fiber-to-the-home community 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? | What is an open access network? | Are there examples of this in Virginia? | How would the broadband authority interact with the existing ConnectArlington Network? | What is the Ammon model? | 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? | What is a software defined network? | Would a broadband authority enforce net neutrality? | 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 to provide internet access based solely on the consideration of super 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 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 prevents Arlington County from using 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 this fall, 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.
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 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 municipal broadband providers from doing the same in the name of preventing anti-competitive “cross subsidization”.
It must be understood by everyone that this Comcast deal is far from ideal. Families that subscribe to their Internet Essentials program are only allowed to access the internet from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and the speeds are only 25 mbps down and 3 mbps up, which many specialists say is simply not adequate for the kind of streaming that kids have to do for school.
Nevertheless, Arlington does have at to use its current assets 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 open access network that connects to all buildings and residences in the county. This broadband authority could provide a fiber-based wireline connection to every building and unit of housing in the county on an “opt-in” basis and use automation and virtualization technology and cloud computing to create a “software defined network” that allows multiple private providers to compete to provide service, as is being done in Ammon, ID. Moreover, we would urge the Arlington County Board to reach out to their colleagues in Alexandria and City of Falls Church to explore a regional authority.
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 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 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 allowed to connect to private buildings as long as it is operated as a non-discriminatory open access network. The broadband authority 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.
An Arlington broadband authority would be able to provide fiber-to-the-home connection to any and all buildings and light that fiber (preferably on an “opt-in” basis). The authority could either provide service itself or it could create a software defined network to allow multiple private providers to compete to provide high-speed internet at an affordable price. This, incidentally, has been the major barrier to ConnectArlington’s attempts to commercially profit off of its network. It is a middle mile network with a complicated lease agreement, which makes it cost prohibitive to third parties that might otherwise be interested in using it. If, however, the broadband authority built out the last mile/the laterals and lit the fiber, it would be far more attractive to third parties in terms of providing service through it.
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.
what is an open access network?
Open access denotes an arrangement in which one network is open to independent service providers to offer services. In many cases, the network owner only sells wholesale access to the service providers who offer all retail services (ie: triple-play of Internet, phone, TV, as well as home alarm systems, and other types of services).
For a detailed discussion of open access networks, see this article by Community Networks. In some respects, ConnectArlington already operates as an open access network, but a broadband authority could make it more attractive and successful by transforming it from a middle mile network to a county-wide fiber-to-the-home/premises network that is publicly owned and operated, but with actual service provided by competing third parties.
We believe that any future open access network here in Arlington should learn from the best practices of local Virginia networks like RVBA and ESVBA and out-of-state ones like Ammon in Idaho and UTOPIA in Utah.
Done right, an open access network with last mile connections would increase internet options exponentially. As Gigi Sohn from the Institute for Technology Law & Policy at Georgetown University noted in a recent testimony before Congress:
Congress should give a bidding preference to “open access networks” when allocating broadband deployment subsidies. Open access networks allow any broadband provider to connect to a network and provide last-mile service to a customer. This model has become very popular for community broadband builds. For example, the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency (UTOPIA) network is the largest open-access network in the United States, comprised of a consortium of 15 Utahan cities. UTOPIA owns and operates the fiber middle-mile and last-mile network and permits private service providers to use the infrastructure to offer retail digital services to customers in UTOPIA member cities. Currently there are 10 Internet service providers offering residential service and 30 offering business services on UTOPIA’s network. This level of broadband competition is practically unheard of in the United States.
Are there examples of this in Virginia?
Multiple cities and counties 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.
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, ArlFiber urges that the ConnectArlington network be transferred more or less 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 Ammon model?
While we would not be opposed to having an Arlington broadband authority act directly as the internet service provider, we believe that the future board of the authority should take a hard look at the example of Ammon, ID, which built a publicly owned and operated open access network that uses a software defined network to let private internet service providers compete to provide service. This competitive model has greatly reduced the price for high-speed internet service and provides latitude to users to build their own networks. You can read a report by Harvard DASH on the Ammon network here [pdf]. You can also watch this video produced by ILSR’s Community Networks:
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.
Unfortunately, if the authority chose to provide service itself, it would not be able to obtain grants and low-interest loans from Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI). If it operated as an open access software defined network, however, it is possible that it could qualify as a “public-private partnership”, which would unlock VATI funds. That said, as of October 7, 2020, the VA Governor’s office has announced that $30 million in CARES Act funds will be made available to improve connectivity in the Commonwealth, with the guidelines stipulating that community-built/run broadband networks are eligible to apply for this money.
Moreover, if certain rule changes are made at the state level, broadband authorities may be able to gain access to funding through the Virginia Resource Authority (technically they can already do so now, but the process for qualifying for VRA bonds is subject to dispute from outside parties; i.e. incumbent telecoms). It’s also possible that we will see a boost to federal funds for internet infrastructure in the near future, given bipartisan support for such spending)
Lastly, a future Arlington Broadband Authority could potentially follow Ammon’s innovative approach to debt-free financing of the build-out by creating Local Improvement Districts (LIDs). As ILSR explains:
LIDs have been used for fiber-optic infrastructure in other places, such as New Hampshire and Poulsbo, Washington, but the approach is still not widespread. In Ammon, the city council’s action creates a district from five subdivisions, where residents can ‘opt in’ or ‘opt out’ of participation in the FTTH network. The district includes 376 individual properties, and 188 of those property owners have expressed a desire to “opt in” to the benefits, and costs, of the network. Those who have chosen to “opt out” do not use the network, nor do they pay for deployment.
LIDs are specifically designed to take advantage of any boost to local property value — and studies have linked FTTH with increased local property values. We’ve previously summarized the most common ways communities finance networks, but LIDs are a little different.
- The local community creates a ‘district’ to issue improvement bonds. In this case, the district consists of five subdivisions of the city.
- Selling those improvement bonds will fund the construction of the local infrastructure project. For Ammon, that’s the open access FTTH network.
- The bonds will then be paid for by an assessment on each of the properties that benefit from the network – only the households that choose to ‘opt in.’
[In Ammon’s case, their IT Director, Bill] Patterson estimated that the monthly assessment on property taxes for those who “opt in” would probably be about $15 to $20. Only those residents who “opt in” have an assessment on their property taxes. If a resident does not want the fiber, there is no assessment on that resident’s property tax.
To connect to the Internet, residents will also need to sign up with one of the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) offering retail services via the open access fiber network. The city will also offer a low cost, no frills, basic option that will allow those that “opt in” the ability to perform basic tasks, like check email.
Strategic Networks Group produced a study of Ammon’s network and came to the following conclusions:
SNG’s analysis of the City of Ammon revealed that over 25 years community benefits are greater than network capital and operational expenses. At SNG we call this an economic case for investing in broadband which is above and beyond the private sector business case. This means that communities and regions can invest in broadband without raising taxes, nor taking on unsustainable debt. By taking an infrastructure approach, broadband investments can be cost-recovery over 15-25 years from municipal cost reductions, subscriber cost savings, maintaining and growing the economic base, and smart community services.
Ammon shows that providing access to high-quality, very affordable broadband for all can be achieved – however, a new approach is needed when unserved and underserved areas do not represent enough of a business case for private sector investment in broadband (where revenues exceed capital and operational costs). Like electrification, broadband is essential infrastructure, where community benefits outweigh investment costs. Electrical infrastructure is a foundation on which communities and economies have been built – those with good quality, ubiquitous, and reliable networks have thrived. With everything going online, communities and economies now need dependable, sustainable broadband infrastructure.
What is a software defined network?
A software defined network is one that takes advantage of automation and virtualization technology and cloud computing to separate network infrastructure from services. You can watch this video to get a better understanding of it:
If the board of the Arlington broadband authority decides that it does not want to act as the service provider, it could still own and operate and build out the network, while allowing private service providers compete to provide service. In the Ammon model, customers only have one set of wires coming to their home, business, or unit, but, thanks to the software defined network, they are able to choose from a host of providers from a dashboard. Here is a screenshot from the Ammon network’s interface (click the image to see an enlarged version):
You can actually log into their portal for a demo. Just go to http://ammonfiber.com/ and click the “My Account” button in the top right of the screen. Enter coademo in both the login and password fields.
A recent study found that Ammon had some of the most affordable high-speed plans in the WORLD. If you check out the demo, you will see that one of the main ISPs is offering 1 gig symmetrical service for ~$10/month:
Compare that to the $10/month that County is now paying Comcast for 25/3 Mbps for Internet Essentials.
On the Ammon network, the customers do not sign long-term contracts and can instantaneously switch to another provider anytime they choose. There is also a lifeline option that provides free service for limited intervals for subscribers who cannot pay because they have fallen on hard times.
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.
Won’t 5G make all this a moot point?
Contrary to 5G industry hype, fiber to the home/premises remains the gold standard in telecommunications. 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 5G connection.