Why do we need this?
We see this project as a way to meet a number of separate but interconnected needs. One is the need to bridge the digital divide. Many working class families in Arlington simply cannot afford internet, which has repercussions for children in terms of doing their school work and for parents in terms of finding jobs and getting information about available public services and assistance.
Another need is community development in south Arlington. The zip code that covers the Penrose, Douglas Park, and Green Valley neighborhoods has some of the lowest social indicators in the county and some of the highest unemployment rates. In addition to providing good paying jobs, we believe the cooperative’s expansion of high-speed, low-cost internet will provide new opportunities for businesses and residents in this area.
Yet another need is competition. The incumbent telecoms have carved out virtual monopolies for themselves in many parts of the county that leave residents with few other options for internet, TV, and/or phone service, which allows these companies to charge high prices and leave many residents behind. Moreover, telecoms like Verizon and Comcast are investor-owned enterprises with little or no stake in the community and whose only priority is making a profit (and the profits they make largely go out of the community — an extractive economic model). The super profits they earn from this situation are then used to lobby against net neutrality, public broadband, and laws protecting your data. A cooperative, on the other hand, would be a democratically governed, place-based institution with broad-based ownership. It would prioritize the needs of the community and keep the value it creates circulating locally and would have no need (nor be allowed) to create tiered service, throttle its customers, or harvest their data for sale to third parties.
Lastly, there is a need to make use of the county’s dark fiber. Arlington County built the dark fiber network in order to break free from Comcast and provide high speed, reliable internet to all public buildings and to improve safety and emergency infrastructure. That aspect of the network has been a smashing success that has already paid for itself. The county’s intention to use the dark fiber network for economic development and earn additional revenue has not been so successful. If this broadband cooperative is successful, it could begin to lease a lot more fiber and provide better, faster telecommunications services for Arlington’s businesses and residences, which would have numerous economic multipliers, in addition to providing revenue for the county government.
What is the “digital divide” and what does it look like in Arlington?
The digital divide takes a number of forms. Within the United States, it denotes the inequalities between individuals, households, and other groups of different demographic and socioeconomic levels in access to information and communication technologies, as well as in the knowledge and skills needed to effectively use the information gained from connecting. The scale and patterns of the divide are generally well known nationally, but are more opaque at the local level — particularly within urban areas.
According to data from Arlington County’s Department of Technology Services, in Arlington today 10 percent of households do not have access to a home broadband internet connection, and 72 percent of households without access to a home broadband internet connection earn $75,000 or less annually. Moreover, the 22204, 22203, and 22206 zip codes have the highest percentage of households reporting no internet subscription. Along with this geographic disparity, there are additional disparities that track along race, class, educational attainment, and age.
What is dark fiber?
Dark fiber is unlit (i.e. unused) optical fiber. Arlington County has built a fiber optic network for its own use, but laid a considerable number of redundant strands. These extra unlit strands can be leased to others or reserved for future needs.
What is a cooperative?
According to the definition offered by the International Cooperative Alliance, a cooperative is “an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically controlled enterprise”. Cooperatives may include:
- businesses owned and managed by the people who use their services (a consumer cooperative);
- organizations managed by the people who work there (worker cooperatives);
- multi-stakeholder or hybrid cooperatives that share ownership between different stakeholder groups. For example, care cooperatives where ownership is shared between both care-givers and receivers. Stakeholders might also include non-profits or investors.
- organizations that serve their members (who may or may not be themselves cooperatives) through cooperative marketing, support and/or purchasing (producer cooperatives);
- platform cooperatives that use a cooperatively owned and governed website, mobile app or a protocol to facilitate the sale of goods and services.
What is a multistakeholder cooperative?
Multi-stakeholder cooperatives (MSCs) are cooperatives that formally allow for governance by representatives of two or more “stakeholder” groups within the same organization, including consumers, producers, workers, volunteers or general community supporters. Rather than being organized around a single class of members the way that most cooperatives are, multi-stakeholder cooperatives enjoy a heterogeneous membership base. The common mission that is the central organizing principle of a multi-stakeholder cooperative is also often more broad than the kind of mission statement needed to capture the interests of only a single stakeholder group, and will generally reflect the interdependence of interests of the multiple partners.
Why would worker-owners in a cooperative need to be unionized?
Unionization has a number of benefits for workers in a cooperative. They can take advantage of union resources, benefit plans, and training programs, and a collective bargaining agreement provides a ready-to-use template in terms of establishing safe and fair working standards and conditions. Lastly, the union will afford protections to workers who are not yet owners in the cooperative. See the Cincinnati Union Coop Initiative for more information.
Where will this network operate?
For the pilot stage of this project, the cooperative will operate along Columbia Pike and in Green Valley. This is mostly due to the fact that the county’s dark fiber trunk network runs directly through these areas, which will hopefully make it cheaper to run fiber to the buildings we hope to service.
Aren’t wired connections and fiber already obsolete now that 5G is coming?
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.
What is Fiber-to-the-Premises/Home?
Fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) and fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) refers to a direct wireline connection from the central office of the service provider to the unit or building occupied by the subscriber. This arrangement will provide for the highest speeds and most reliable connections. It is possible that as the coop expands, it will provide connection to more remote customers through fixed wireless connections until it becomes financially feasible to run fiber to the premises. This may also be the case with older (and even some new) multiunit buildings where there is no internal infrastructure to support deployment of fiber to the unit.
Will the infamous Dillon Rule stop us from doing this?
The cooperative would be a private enterprise leasing fiber from the county, so the Dillon Rule does not apply here. That said, the cooperative could begin to feel pressure from the incumbents if it proves to be a successful venture.
A similar sounding project at the Arlington Mill affordable housing complex failed. How will this one succeed?
One attempt involving the Arlington Mill project failed because the ISP seeking to provide service was unwilling to accept the terms of the county’s lease, partly because of its investors’ opposition to the timelines imposed. We do not foresee this being a problem for the cooperative, since the investors will be the community members being served by it and workers running it. As a not-for-profit community owned entity, we are certain the county will be willing to relax certain parts of the existing lease.
How much will internet service cost under this cooperative?
The goal of the cooperative is to provide the highest speeds possible for the lowest cost that is financially feasible. As we are in the initial phases of this project it is impossible to say what pricing will be like; however, other broadband cooperatives have been able to offer gigabit service at $60-80/month and “triple play” bundles for a little over $100.
Are there examples of similar cooperatives here in the U.S.? In Virginia?
There are no examples of a broadband cooperative like the one we envision here. There are a few startup broadband cooperatives such as RS Fiber in Minnesota and many existing electric and phone cooperatives like Central Virginia Electric Cooperative have begun to deploy FTTH networks for their members, although none of these are multistakeholder cooperatives and none of them operate in (sub)urban areas. Our vision for this cooperative is as a hybrid institution that combines the consumer cooperative and (unionized) worker cooperative models. In that regard, we were inspired by the Cleveland Evergreen Cooperatives, the Cincinnati Union Coop Initiative, and multistakeholder agricultural coops like the Fifth Season in Viroqua, WI.
Why doesn’t Arlington County just create a full retail municipal broadband service using its existing dark fiber network?
This is a good question that can only be answered by the County Board. Under the VA Code’s The Virginia Wireless Service Authority Act, the county has full right to form a “broadband authority” that would be able to build out its existing dark fiber network and provide full retail services as an ISP (or create an “open access” network, whereby the County would light the fiber and deploy it directly to buildings and homes, but lease it to third party ISP). Roanoke Broadband Authority and the Eastern Shore Broadband Authority are both successful examples of this. Meanwhile we will continue to explore the creation of a community owned cooperative enterprise to lease and light the dark fiber.