Before you read this post, we highly encourage you (beg you, frankly) to please, please, please take this broadband survey that the consultant created: click here. After which, please share it widely!!! We need this data if we are to salvage this study.
TLDR version of this post: The County awarded the RFP for its broadband study in late March. The winner, Televate LLC, does not appear to be interested in seriously studying municipal broadband and the current course and scope of the study could very well reproduce the same work on broadband that has been done in the past, without moving us forward in any meaningful way. Residents and civic groups that are interested in community broadband for all, should reach out to the County Board members and let them know.
RFP – Wait and See
Thanks to robust community advocacy (with a not so little contribution from the ArlFiber coalition, we might humbly add…) and a few forward-looking County Board members, Arlington County government appropriated funds in the 2022 budget to undertake a formal broadband study. The call for proposals opened in early December 2021 and ended in mid January (why the County Manager’s Office/Purchasing Office initiated the RFP process in the middle of the holiday season with such a short turnaround time is beyond us, but we digress).
If we’re being honest, the scope of the RFP [click here] was not exactly what ArlFiber had envisioned. We had advocated for something like this one from Hillsboro, since that kind of RFP would be far more direct in terms of really assessing the very complicated question of whether Arlington can use its existing resources to take control of its broadband future by building a community-owned fiber-to-the-home network. Instead, the RFP that the County did put out asks the consultant to gather a daunting amount of granular statistical data on internet access and availability throughout the county (some of which feels like a repeat of work the County’s digital equity team already paid a different consultant to do and a study that local affordable housing providers already commissioned), and then, taking that data into account, asks the consultant to research a relatively long menu of options for addressing any outstanding needs. Those gripes aside, however, the RFP did at least ask the consultant to study different broadband implementation models, one of which is a county-provided service using a “wireless service authority” (i.e. broadband authority):
Of course, as you can see from the above, that is not the only model to be considered, with some of the competing options being less than desirable in our opinion (options 3 and 4 have both been tried already and produced less than satisfactory results – hence the study, no…?).
In any event, based on the results of our FOIA, it appears that a total of six vendors* submitted responses to the RFP:
- Accenture | response here
- Athena | response here
- CTC | response here
- Magellan | response here
- Televate | response here
- Tilson | response here
While at least two of these vendors are well-known and well-respected consultants on community broadband networks (e.g. CTC and Magellan), the winner of the bid ended up being Televate, LLC [award notice], who will be partnering with Strategic Networks Group (SNG) on the study. To be fair to Televate, having reviewed the other bids, it appears that Televate provided the most detailed, non-cookie-cutter response to the County’s RFP, but it’s hard to know whether the other bids may have been better if they hadn’t been solicited in the middle of the holiday season. We’ll never know.
Upon perusing the Televate website, it does not appear to us that Televate has all that much experience with advising on the kind of municipal network development that we would like to see here in Arlington (mostly they seem to write white papers on wireless technologies). SNG, on the other hand, has at least authored a few studies that positively evaluated the outcomes of community owned networks (such as the famous Ammon model), but their role in this study has seemingly been relegated to data collection [once again please take their survey].
Televate: Old Wine, New Bottles?
Televate’s detailed and highly-tailored response notwithstanding, a simple skim of key parts of their bid reveal that they (and, most likely by extension, the County’s selection committee) have a certain bias against municipal broadband solutions. As the Televate team writes in their cover letter to County Procurement Officer Sy Gezachew:
Our approach will be to maximize competition with sustainable infrastructure [remember this term!!!] and to create solutions that minimize the need for County staffing and oversight. Our vision is a marketplace with robust competition for a valuable customer base where there is ample incentive for multiple providers to sustain high-quality broadband services that continually meet the demands of a diverse population.
One could potentially assume that robust competition might include a not-for-profit, municipal provider that sets the baseline for service and pricing, but the bit about minimizing staffing and oversight already seems to remonstrate against that. Indeed, elsewhere in their bid Televate implies that Arlington should steer clear of providing service themselves, stating that the advantages of such would be “limited need for staffing personnel to maintain service quality, repair fiber cuts, and generally be accountable for broadband service in a very competitive labor market.”
We should pause now to review some history. In the early 10s, Arlington made the very wise decision to end their long-standing reliance on subpar and expensive cable telecom service from Comcast. Taking advantage of federal funds available at the time, we opted to build our own high-capacity, publicly owned/operated, fiber optic network to provide service to County schools and buildings (i.e. ConnectArlington). As they were building that network, they made the decision to lay oodles of extra fiber, conduit, and “handholds” in strategic corridors with the intention of leasing said excess infrastructure to private entities for economic development purposes. Unfortunately for the County, however, there has never been much interest from private entities in using that infrastructure. Many have blamed the County’s onerous leasing agreement for this outcome, but the recent relaxation of such leasing arrangements – evident in the Crystal City deal – have seemingly not brought all the telecoms to the yard, as the old song goes. Meanwhile, attempts to use the network for the purpose of closing the local digital divide have frequently faltered due to legal constraints, pressure from Comcast, or a stubborn obsession with unworkable wireless schemes (more on that in a moment). Of course, these many of these failures could have been avoided or mitigated by forming a broadband authority.
With this history in mind, we at ArlFiber read Televate’s winning bid with no small sense of resignation. In that bid, Televate tells us that, where so many other County efforts on this front have previously failed, they will provide us with solutions “that achieve multi-vendor, competitive broadband service environments”. How will they do this? Easy – by having the County “install conduit and dark fiber along key routes that the operators could ‘light’ with their own electronics”, or “alternatively, the County could install conduit making it easier for both retail and middle-mile service providers to install their own fiber.”
For those of you keeping score at home, the County has done this in spades already…with zero results so far. And despite all our failures in making wireless infrastructure work, Televate likewise offered to do evaluations of the potential of using wireless solutions to meet our broadband needs…although they qualify that offer:
While wireless solutions are more effective for low-density areas, where appropriate, Televate will use radio propagation simulation software to predict where optimal tower locations could be sited to serve those areas.
The County paid a previous consultant New Urbana to do such a study in the past. It did not pan out. The County’s own attempt to deploy CBRS antennas (what Mark Schwartz described at a County Board meeting as “wifi blasters”) along Columbia Pike during the remote school period of the pandemic was likewise ultimately abortive. Why we should pay Televate $250,000 (or more) to repeat such work is a very relevant question for County officials.
Sustainable Infrastructure and the Digital Divide
In light of all the above, ArlFiber went into its own meeting with the Televate team with some apprehensions, but there was a vague notion on our side that the consultant was looking at the situation “globally” and was holding these meetings to gather information from groups on the ground who had been digging into the various problems of broadband throughout the County. And, to be clear, we had a reasonable expectation that the scope of this study was community-wide, as the RFP included such language. For instance, the RFP asks the would-be consultant to gather data on the following:
- Assess current and future needs of broadband for businesses, organizations, anchor institutions, and households throughout Arlington; and
- Identify targeted broadband speeds to meet the existing and future needs of the County, categorized by household and business size.
Most importantly, in the section on strategic recommendations, the RFP states:
The recommendations should include at a minimum:
3.1 Propose the most appropriate internet delivery model(s) for Arlington County that addresses broadband needs. Discuss how the proposed model(s) will position the County to ensure the community has reliable, affordable internet, now and for years to come, and to further Arlington’s Digital Equity goals.
Despite these sign posts of a more wholistic approach to assessing broadband and proposing solutions, we learned that the Televate team has a far narrower scope in mind. In our meeting with them, we were asked to lay out our own proposal for bridging the digital divide, which can summarized accordingly:
- Arlington County needs to form a broadband authority [“wireless service authority”] in order to have maximum flexibility in using its existing publicly owned telecommunications network (too many past projects have been hobbled/hindered by lack of legal authorities) and, if feasible, use this as a vehicle to create a municipal fiber-to-the-home network;
- Investments of public money in broadband infrastructure should prioritize technology that will have the greatest longevity and future scalability (i.e. optical fiber to the home/premises);
- The most sustainable solution to the digital divide would be to create a not-for-profit (municipal) provider that seeks to provide service to the broadest array of customers possible (i.e. both served and “under/unserved”) within a project area, so that operating costs and subsidies for low-income subscribers are manageable over the long-term;
- As such, the solution should be scalable to the whole county, but should start with some pilot projects in the communities that are nearest to the existing resources.
The Televate team recorded these points and asked some follow up questions, but when a member of our group asked whether they were actively investigating the option of providing service to the served and unserved alike so as to defray costs, we were told unambiguously “no”. The Televators explained that their mandate was to come up with solutions for the “under/unserved” only (which they seemed to define as subscribers/households who had less than 100 mbps down/20 mbps up – Comcast’s preferred standard). When we asked how service to only low-income subscribers could be sustained without a more universal approach, the Televate lead treated us to a harangue about how a municipal provider that seeks to provide service to anyone and everyone throughout the County using optical fiber would cost “billions” and pit us against four or five big league telecom companies with highly sophisticated business models and economies of scale. That would require a completely different study involving market analysis, engineering plans, business modeling, etc. (none of this was news to us, as this was exactly what we asked the County to study – using a consultant with a proven record on launching a municipal broadband project). Suffice it to say, this did not leave ArlFiber feeling as though Televate was prepared to provide a “neutral” assessment of municipal broadband as an option for bridging the digital divide. Nor were we likely to get a solution for “sustainable infrastructure”.
In the end, the only conditional points of agreement that we managed to find with the Televate team was that 1) the Televate team consider outlining as part of the study a digital divide project that would seek to provide service universally in an area that is disproportionately un/underserved and is located particularly close to existing ConnectArlington infrastructure; and 2) the Televate team consider using Hillsboro as their case study for providing fiber-to-the-home/premises through a “wireless service authority” (Hillsboro is the best apples-to-apples comparison, since they are of similar size, geography, demographics; moreover, they built their Hilight network using existing public fiber and are competing – like we would be – in a duopoly telecom market – watch our forum with Hilight general manager Brad Nosler).
Whether we even get that, of course, is an open question and will likely depend on the degree to which the County Board members lean on staff to produce meaningful outcomes. Right now, however, ArlFiber fears that this study will merely recommend that the County cobble together a mix of state and federal resources to subsidize the under/unserved through existing providers and/or make vague suggestions about how to attract private companies to use the existing dark fiber/conduit to improve competition (something that, as we noted above, has been done before).
The long and short of it is that we need more voices in the community calling for a serious study of municipal broadband. Arlfiber believes fervently that we need to treat broadband like a utility and public infrastructure (i.e. like water). This means that everyone should have access to the same level of high-quality infrastructure and hence that we should not maintain a utility arrangement where some have access to fiber (Fios), some to cable (Xfinity), and others to shared wifi in a lounge. The only way to achieve that would be to build a fiber-to-the-home broadband network that is capable of providing service directly to every residential and commercial entity in the County. This is not pie in the sky. Many other cities have done it successfully and are willing to share their recipes. And those cities now have world class broadband service.
Televate is currently reaching out to various constituencies and groups in the community for feedback. We would encourage anyone reading this to get in touch with the Department of Technology Services (jhunger[at]arlingtonva[dot]us and Hhartell[at]arlingtonva[dot]us) if you have a story to tell about broadband in Arlington.
* In full disclosure, when the RFP first dropped in early December, ArlFiber reached out to a number of competent broadband consultants with a proven record of advising successful community networks and asked them to submit a response. After reading the RFP and/or attending the County’s info session for interested vendors, several of the consultants walked away, citing the unfocused nature of the RFP and the dubious prospects for gathering meaningful data for the County based on the requirements. In the end, only one of those consultants submitted a response.