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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 telecommunications markets to provide internet access, whereby the decisions on service are 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.
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 provides far better service than Comcast ever did and has already paid for itself. Despite that, when the pandemic hit, Arlington County was forced to pay $500,000 to Comcast to provide free internet service to low-income families because Virginia telecommunications laws bar the County from using its own network to do this itself. And who is responsible for those laws? Comcast (and the other big telecoms), of course.
Despite certain misconceptions about legal constraints on municipal broadband in Virginia, Arlington does have a way around this problem, which is to form a broadband authority under The Virginia Wireless Service Authority Act (VWSAA) and create a public option for all businesses and residences in the county. Multiple cities and counties in Virginia have already taken this route, the most successful examples being the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority and the Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority (ESVBA). An Arlington broadband authority could act as the internet service provider (ISP) as is done by ESVBA here in VA and in cities outside of VA like Chattanooga (TN), Longmont (CO), and Hillsboro (OR), or it could build an open access network that allows third party ISPs to compete to provide service as is done in Utah through UTOPIA and Ammon, ID through a software defined network.
This is an opportune time to pursue community broadband. The Biden administration’s proposed infrastructure investment plan is set to provide a considerable amount of money to localities for broadband infrastructure and to enable the creation of public networks to provide service. We need to get out ahead of this and have “shovel-ready” projects on hand.
Therefore, we the undersigned urge you to act swiftly to:
1) form a broadband authority for Arlington County under the powers granted to counties, cities and towns in Virginia by The Virginia Wireless Service Authority Act;
2) conduct a formal feasibility study to assess the best options for moving ahead with a publicly owned, county-wide fiber to the home network.