Benefits of Community Broadband Panel Discussion (10/4/2021)

Graphic by John Musco

On Monday, October 4, 2021 we had an amazing panel discussion on the benefits of community broadband. As the Arlington County Board takes tentative steps toward exploring the creation of a public option for broadband for all its residents, we thought it would benefit our Arlington friends and neighbors to hear how other communities are making use of their community-owned and community-oriented broadband networks to spur economic development, foster innovation, and bridge the digital divide. Our assembled group of public broadband practitioners from around the country talked to us about how their networks are making a major difference in their communities and gave us a great opportunity to learn and be inspired.

In addition to our, speakers we also heard from County Board member Christian Dorsey, who expressed the need to treat broadband as a utility and not a luxury commodity.

For a copy of Brad Nosler’s slides, click here.

For a copy of Bruce Patterson’s slides, click here.

Video version:

Audio-only version:

Speakers and topics:

Deb Socia. Deb is President and CEO of The Enterprise Center, a nonprofit that nurtures innovation in Chattanooga, Tennessee with the goal of connecting people to resources and building an inclusive community. Growing the entrepreneurial ecosystem and the Innovation District, building digital equity, and supporting research and implementation of smart city applications are all a part of the organization’s focus. Prior to her current role, Deb was the Executive Director of Next Century Cities, a nonprofit that supports community leaders as they seek to ensure that all have access to fast, affordable, and reliable Internet. A fun fact about Deb is that she previously served on Arlington’s Broadband Advisory Committee, so she is intimately familiar with our ConnectArlington network. Deb spoke to us about a range of innovative programs being enabled by Chattanooga’s municipal broadband network.

Brad Nosler, General Manager for HiLight, the City of Hillsboro’s (Oregon) municipal fiber optic broadband system. Brad has led efforts to build HiLight system operations from the ground up. Prior to joining the city, the vast majority of Brad’s professional career had been in the fast-growing cable/telecommunications industry. Beginning in 1983, he spent more than 33 years in the cable, telecommunications, and broadband industry, serving in a variety of leadership roles. Brad was previously VP of Marketing and Sales for Comcast and NBCUniversal from 2010 until 2016, and held positions of Senior Director of Product Marketing at Comcast; Director of Marketing with AT&T Broadband; and Director of Government & External Affairs for Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI). In his presentation, Brad focused on the HiLight network’s “Bridge” program, which is a ground-breaking approach to building digital equity in impoverished areas of Hillsboro. For a copy of his slides, click here.

Daniel Jones, Chief Information Officer, Information Technology Department of Portsmouth, VA. Daniel Jones has served as the Chief Information Officer (CIO) for the City of Portsmouth, VA since January 2016. Daniel strategically leads 33 employees encompassing three divisions of the Department of Information Technology. With more than 20 years of Information Technology experience, Daniel strives for a holistic approach to Information Technology through digital inclusion.  Currently, key initiatives include the transformation of Portsmouth, VA into a Smart & Secure City as identified by City Council. Those initiatives include a municipal broadband fiber network and connectivity of unserved and underserved communities. Daniel spoke to us about how Portsmouth formed a broadband authority to undertake a number of public interest initiatives, particularly in the realm of digital equity.


Bruce Patterson, Director of Solution Services at Entry Point Networks, where he oversees all consulting projects, including network planning, feasibility analysis, network design, cost projections, construction oversight and network operations and management. Bruce is the recognized thought leader behind the ‘Ammon Model’ which includes Automated Open Access and a Business Model that mitigates risk for cities and creates local network ownership of infrastructure that is treated as a true public utility. In 2020, the Open Technology Institute released its annual survey of global internet costs and listed Ammon as network with the lowest cost for Gig internet access worldwide. Bruce was the Technology Director at the City of Ammon and responsible for network planning, design, construction, and network operations until his departure from the City in June of 2021. If you attended our last forum, you’ll remember Bruce gave a fascinating presentation on the “Ammon model”. During this presentation, he focused on the kinds of network innovations that a software defined network is capable of when implemented on a publicly-owned fiber to the home/premises network. For a copy of his slides, click here.

Proposal on broadband feasibility study

As we noted in our last post, County Board Chair Matt de Ferranti allocated $50K of the 2022 County Budget to study the feasibility of creating a broadband authority to provide internet service to low-income residents here in Arlington. After having met with several Board members after the fact, we learned that the agreed goal of the study would be to establish a “basic set of facts”, although what those facts are exactly was not really explicated. In light of that, ArlFiber took it upon itself to create a set of recommentations to inform the feasibility study’s investigations, the text of which can be found below.

To be sure, this is an auspicious time to pursue this feasibility study (but also increase its limited scope). The County has many unallocated millions left over from its share of the federal ARPA dollars, which can be used for infrastructure projects like broadband. As we point out in our proposal, the U.S. Treasury guidelines state explicitly that there is a preference for that money to go to not-for-profit providers doing fiber-to-the-home projects that provide at least 100/100 mbps symmetrical service. The Treasury guidelines also state that businesses and currently served residents are eligible to be connected as part of these projects.

Another potential wind in the community broadband sail is that the Congressional infrastructure bill indefinitely extends the Emergency Broadband Benefit program by allocating $14.2 billion for a “sustainable” (and re-named) Affordability Connectivity Benefit that would provide a $30 per month voucher for eligible low-income families to use toward any Internet service plan they choose. While there are some caveats with this program, it is a potentially encouraging development, since it would allow a future Arlington broadband authority to provide a high-level of internet service to low-income households without much financial burden to itself. One need only look to Hillsboro, OR, which is currently able to use its community network to provide symmetrical gigabit service to its low-income residents for $10/month, so the $30/month from the Affordable Connectivity Benefit should be enough for Arlington to provide a similar level of service (one that is leagues above Comcast’s 50/5 mbps service under its low-income Internet Essentials plan, which is too slow for work/learn from home situations).

In any event, $50K will only get us so far. If the County truly wants to create a community-owned, county-wide, fiber-to-the-home broadband provider, this will likely only serve as a pre-feasibility study at best, as the County would need other information on engineering and the like. That said, this is likely good enough to do a few non-exclusive projects around the existing dark fiber network’s access points that could grow into a wider network.


ArlFiber Proposal for Feasibility Study on Forming a Broadband Authority

For a PDF version of this proposal, click here.

Executive summary

The COVID-19 pandemic showed us how essential high-speed internet at home is. Even before the pandemic, however, an unacceptably high number of households had no access to internet at home, which, given the demographics of those households constituted a serious civil rights and equity issue. The County’s attempts to mitigate the impact of this digital divide, while laudable, were largely hampered by the reliance on existing for-profit providers to solve the problem. In order to address this issue once and for all, the County must explore how it can provide futureproof broadband service to all residents at home in a way that treats this as a utility and essential public infrastructure; e.g. like water. To be sure, communities across the U.S. have made tremendous strides in bridging their digital divide by forming a community network that puts public need over private profits. Using the $50,000 set aside in the 2022 budget for a feasibility study of this issue, the County should obtain a certain set of facts through reputable, independent third parties. These facts should be: 1) the legal considerations of establishing a utility authority for this purpose; 2) the technology(ies) most able to meet the U.S. Treasury Interim Final Rule’s standard of scalable symmetrical 100 mbps service; and 3) the cost of deploying a public network over the broadest possible area, with a focus on the underserved areas already identified by county staff. The findings of this study should allow the County Board, County staff, and the community at large to make an informed decision on whether to create a community network for Arlington.

Why this is needed

The recent COVID-19 pandemic has made it abundantly clear that having affordable access to high-speed, low-latency, reliable internet service at home is essential to participation in modern life. The mass transition of work, school, government services, civic participation, health care, and the like to an online format during the pandemic left many of our fellow citizens behind, often with dire consequences for them. Doubtless, many of these online practices are likely to endure and deepen after the pandemic has finally subsided.

It must be emphasized, however, that there was already a glaring digital divide before the onset of the pandemic – particularly among school-age children – that constituted a crisis in its own right.[1] In the summer of 2020, Arlington’s Department of Technology Services published a study that revealed that 16 percent of households in our county had no home internet access, and that these were primarily elderly residents, people of color, recent immigrants, and families with multiple school-age children.[2] In light of the fact that many of the school-age children who lack home internet are from vulnerable and/or minority populations, this state of affairs must be viewed as an unacceptable civil rights violation.[3] Indeed, national research shows that school-age children without home internet struggle to keep up with their internet-rich peers.[4]

The Arlington County government must be applauded for taking swift and decisive action to find and employ an array of stop-gap solutions to mitigate the digital divide during the height of the pandemic, particularly as concerns APS students in need of access to remote learning. That said, these solutions, as should be clear to all now, were neither sustainable nor adequate. This is because those solutions generally relied upon using the existing private telecommunications networks to provide service to those most in need.[5]

This all stems from the fact that the U.S. telecommunications market is dominated by a handful of large, for-profit providers. These large incumbent providers have tended to build networks in densely populated areas where they have little to no competition, which in turn allows them to charge high prices without worrying much about quality of service.[6] These high prices are directly responsible for the adoption issues in urban areas like Arlington.[7] Moreover, incumbent providers use the excess profits generated from these de facto monopolistic arrangements to lobby local/state governments and Congress to reduce consumer protections, fend off competition, and obtain public money for buildouts that often never materialize.[8] Arlington – and Virginia generally – is no exception to this rule. Outside of certain newer commercial buildings, Arlington’s commercial and residential broadband internet market is dominated by two companies and in many places only one. Meanwhile, the state government continues to throw up barriers to community internet solutions and give public money to incumbent providers to continue to build and/or expand legacy networks using outdated technology.

What is needed

Multiple communities across the United States have worked to solve their internet problems by building a community network.[9] Several of these networks are now considered to be the among the fastest and cheapest not only nationally, but globally.[10] Chattanooga’s publicly owned and operated fiber-to-the-home network earned that city the title of “best work from home city” in North America during the pandemic.[11] Moreover, many of these networks have implemented nationally recognized digital inclusion programs.[12]

In light of this, Arlington would do well to consider the creation of its own community network. Under the current legal framework in Virginia, it appears the best approach to this is for the county government to form a “broadband authority” to utilize currently unused portions of its existing county owned optical fiber network to provide broadband internet as a utility service.[13] Indeed, multiple municipalities and counties in VA have already formed broadband authorities (individually or as a group) to begin addressing their connectivity problems.[14] 

Under the initiative of the current Chair of the Arlington County Board, $50,000 was allocated under the 2022 budget to study the feasibility of establishing a broadband authority to provide broadband internet to underserved households. In accordance with the discussion of the nature of these funds at the budget hearing, such a feasibility study should establish “a common set of facts”.[15] While the “set of facts” was not explicitly identified by the board members, we believe this study should explore the following:

  1. The legal considerations for establishing a broadband authority in Arlington County to utilize its existing county-owned optical fiber network to provide internet as a utility service;
  2. The proper technology to use to provide scalable and reliable broadband internet service at least at the level recommended by the U.S. Treasury Department in its Interim Final Rule on American Rescue Plan Act funds (i.e., service that reliably meets or exceeds symmetrical upload and download speeds of 100 Mbps and is scalable to meet future data needs);
  3. The potential cost/revenue of extending service to all residents in Arlington using currently unused portions of the existing county-owned optical fiber system, while prioritizing the underserved areas already identified by County staff.

This study is very timely as it coincides with the arrival of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds that encourage investment in broadband infrastructure in areas that are underserved, especially since the U.S. Treasury’s Interim Final Rule on ARPA funds “encourages recipients to prioritize support for broadband networks owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments, non-profits, and co-operatives—providers with less pressure to turn profits and with a commitment to serving entire communities.”[16] In addition, President Biden’s recent Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy instructs the FCC to implement policies that would prohibit landlords from entering into exclusive deals with ISPs, which is a major stumbling block in terms of reaching the high-density, high-revenue apartment buildings.[17]

Legal considerations

It is well established that political subdivisions of Virginia have the legal right to create a “wireless service authority”, (hereafter: broadband authority). These broadband authorities have wide discretion to directly build, own, and operate telecommunication systems (including optical fiber and wired systems) that provide high speed data and internet access service to customers. Aside from the living practice of existing broadband authorities in Virginia, this right was confirmed by a State Corporation Commission Final Order in 2019[18] and in the guidance that the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development issued to localities with regard to their options for bridging the digital divide during the pandemic.[19]

Nonetheless, there are legal nuances that should be explored as part of the study, such as the transfer and/or leasing of assets from ConnectArlington to a broadband authority, the negotiation of rights of way, etc. This legal study must be conducted by an independent party with specific expertise and experience in telecommunications and sufficient experience in advising other broadband authorities in the state.

Technology

            The language in the budget authorizing the $50,000 for a feasibility study states that the study shall determine the feasibility of forming a broadband authority to provide broadband internet service to low-income households utilizing Citizen Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) technology.[20]

This stipulation must be amended. A study of this nature must be relatively technology neutral and must instead identify which technology or technologies arecapable of meeting the requirements of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Interim Final Rule to implement the Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund and the Coronavirus Local Fiscal Recovery Fund established under the American Rescue Plan Act. That rule stipulates that “projects are expected to be designed to deliver, upon project completion, service that reliably meets or exceeds symmetrical upload and download speeds of 100 Mbps”. Per the Treasury’s guidance, these speeds are necessary to “ensure that broadband infrastructure is sufficient to enable users to generally meet household needs, including the ability to support the simultaneous use of work, education, and health applications, and also sufficiently robust to meet increasing household demands for bandwidth”. Moreover, the Interim Final Rule encourages fund recipients to “focus on projects that deliver a physical broadband connection by prioritizing projects that achieve last mile-connections”.[21] As such, any public investment in broadband infrastructure must be focused on technology that is “future proof”; i.e. being the most capable of meeting increases in data demand well into the future, including speeds well in excess of 100 Mbps.[22]

Scope

            The current budget language states that the focus of the study will be the feasibility of the “introduction of broadband high-speed internet service to those tenants in committed affordable units”.[23] While any project should focus on getting affordable or free service to such households, the digital divide exists beyond committed affordable units, as evidenced by the County’s own project to provide wireless service to several market rate apartment buildings along Columbia Pike.[24]  This study must be as broad as possible and should arguably consider the county as a whole – or at the very least the areas closest to the existing county owned optical fiber lines and access points.[25] Signing up full-freight customers along with highly subsidized ones will improve the financial footing of the authority. Moreover, residents and businesses should have the option to be connected by any last mile connection passing them. Indeed, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Interim Final Rule encourages projects that expand high-speed access to “businesses”, which it interprets as including non-residential users of broadband, including private businesses and institutions that serve the public, such as schools, libraries, healthcare facilities, and public safety organizations.[26] The feasibility study could potentially utilize the Community Network Quickstart Program to obtain preliminary data on the cost of a county-wide buildout.[27]

Conclusion

            Arlington County has a unique opportunity to build a digital landscape that provides world-class connection to all, is sustainable, privacy-enhancing, rights-preserving, innovative and democratic by design. The results of this feasibility study, if conducted as outlined above, will provide the “set of facts” we need to make an informed decision about creating a community network that would allow us to accomplish that. With the trend of work from home rising all over the country and the County’s desire to attract tech companies and workers, while also ensuring digital equity, it is imperative for Arlington to pursue an earnest investigation of creating a community network that could definitively achieve those goals. Indeed, if we wish to remain a world-class community that is dedicated to fairness, justice, and innovation, we have no other choice.


[1] “America’s Digital Divide”, Pew, July 2019, https://tinyurl.com/37xjw272.

[2] “Arlington County Digital Equity Access Project (DEAP): Final Report, August 2020”, https://tinyurl.com/cwd4tkjv.

[3] “Study Examines Digital Divide Impact on Black Families Amid COVID-19 Pandemic”, August 2021, https://tinyurl.com/ye7pd49h.

[4] “How the Digital Divide Made Inequity in Education Systems”, October 2020, https://tinyurl.com/259b84t2.

[5] “Amend SB 1225”, January 2021, https://tinyurl.com/u722p92.

[6] “The Problem(s) of Broadband in America”, July 2021, https://tinyurl.com/7fjcnxy.

[7] “Focusing on Affordability: What Broadband Adoption Rates in Cities Tell Us About Getting More People Online”, April 2021, https://tinyurl.com/dafrm3vd.

[8] “ISPs spent $235 million on lobbying and donations, ‘more than $320,000 a day’”, July 2020, https://tinyurl.com/4v7dbaw3. See also, “Oh Look, More Giant ISPs Taking Taxpayer Money for Unfinished Networks”, January 2020, https://tinyurl.com/ydw9zzmj.

[9] “Community Broadband: The Fast, Affordable Internet Option That’s Flying Under the Radar”, May 2020, https://tinyurl.com/y22bbrxh.

[10] “PCMag’s Fastest ISPs in America List Once Again Proves the Value of Cities Investing in Internet Infrastructure”, June 2021, https://tinyurl.com/8uehexw8.

[11] “The Best Work from Home Cities for 2021”, February 2021, https://tinyurl.com/4xn64k49.

[12] “Municipal Fiber Networks Power Digital Inclusion Programs”, October 2019, https://tinyurl.com/kjvn973s.

[13] “Wireless Service Authorities and the The Virginia Wireless Service Authority Act”, 2008, https://bit.ly/33czKqJ.

[14] “Virginia Broadband Authorities”, August 2019, https://tinyurl.com/yym4zpu7.

[15] VIRTUAL County Board Budget Mark Up Work Session, Apr 15th, 2021, (01:07:00), https://tinyurl.com/5mjasr3c.

[16] United States Department of the Treasury Interim Final Rule – Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal

Recovery Funds, May 2021, https://tinyurl.com/yyen77wn.

[17] “Biden Executive Order on Internet Service”, July 2021, https://tinyurl.com/2kebwhdk.

[18] Commonwealth of Virginia State Corporation Commission Final Order (Case No. PUR-2018-00200), September 2019, https://tinyurl.com/ct7ttehk.

[19] Letter from Director of the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development Erik C. Johnston to Chair Kory, October 2012, https://tinyurl.com/h2pz5e3a.

[20] “FY 2022 County Board Adopted Budget Guidance”, April 2021, https://tinyurl.com/3ayr62ts.

[21] United States Department of the Treasury Interim Final Rule – Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal

Recovery Funds, May 2021, https://tinyurl.com/yyen77wn.

[22] In reality this means a fiber optic cable to the home. See “Why Fiber is Vastly Superior to Cable and 5G”, October 2019, https://tinyurl.com/8txeu4 and “Why Slow Networks Really Cost More Than Fiber”, June 2014, https://tinyurl.com/4wt6j5n6.

[23] “FY 2022 County Board Adopted Budget Guidance”, April 2021, https://tinyurl.com/3ayr62ts.

[24] “Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Arlington County Government

and Arlington Public Schools for Arlington Public Schools’ students Internet Access”, November 2020, https://tinyurl.com/2skajzae.

[25] The new connectivity maps from NTIA should make it easy to determine good starting points in the county. See NTIA, Indicator of Broadband Need, https://tinyurl.com/xfx3cz6n.

[26] Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds: Frequently Asked Questions AS OF JULY 19, 2021, p. 29, https://tinyurl.com/kf22ceut.

[27] Community Networks Quickstart, http://cnquickstart.com/.

County Board Allocates Money for Feasibility Study in 2022 Budget

After almost a year of tireless advocacy, ArlFiber has finally netted a tangible win in its campaign for community broadband for Arlington. Yesterday (Tuesday, April 20), the Arlington County Board passed their budget for 2022, which includes $50,000 for a feasibility study on forming a broadband authority:

The backstory to this achievement is that members of ArlFiber met with the County Manager Mark Schwartz a few months back to discuss the possibility of forming an authority to start building a publicly owned fiber-to-the-home network. Suffice it to say, the County Manager was open to the idea, but slightly skeptical that such a network would be successful. Ultimately he asked us to show him some examples of cities that have done this that really looked like us; e.g. urban but without a public electric utility and with two entrenched incumbent internet service providers.

Given that criteria, we were hard-pressed to produce an abundance of examples, since the bigger cities like Chattanooga that have a successful public network deployed it through their electric utility, whereas many others are much smaller or more rural than Arlington and only had one major incumbent (usually a cable company without a fiber-to-the-home network). We compiled a list, but were not entirely satisfied with it. But then, lo and behold, the closest apples-to-apples example that we have ever seen emerged on the community broadband horizon: Hillsboro, Oregon.

Hillsboro is situated just outside of Portland and has a tech heavy business environment. While its population is smaller (105K), its size (25 sq miles) and demographic make-up (tech, higher degree holders) are similar. Moreover, they have two established incumbents: Comcast and Ziply Fiber (the latter having been spun off the now defunct Frontier). Like Arlington, Hillsboro already owned fiber optic resources that it used for municipal facilities, schools, traffic signals, and other purposes. In 2018 they formed a new communications utility to establish a fund and execute a dig-once policy for installing conduit in new construction areas (something that we have been doing for almost a decade). Now, after much study and planning, Hillsboro is finally executing fiber-to-the-home/premises buildouts in two separate neighborhoods as an expansion of the local government/school network. Of particular note is that one of the two pilot communities is a low-income area, where they will set a up a “bridge” program to provide $10/month gigabit FTTH connections to these households (utilizing a network of non-profits to do the verification and digital literacy work). For regular residential customers, Hilight is charging only $55/month for symmetrical gigabit service and even offers 2 ($125/m), 3 ($200/m), and 4 ($300/m) gig service. The public network offers VOIP and internet, but not video (which is what an Arlington Broadband authority would do, since state law prohibits broadband authorities from providing video service).

We forwarded the news about Hillsboro to the County Manager, and Department of Technology Services (DTS) staff quickly set up a meeting with HiLight principals Greg Mont and Brad Nosler (ArlFiber had a separate meeting with them). We then sent our notes to County Board members Matt de Ferranti and Takis Karantonis and scheduled a meeting with them. At that meeting, Matt and Takis agreed that a feasibility study made sense, and had us go back to Hillsboro to get information on their RFP and the cost, which was $50,000 and performed by a consultant called Uptown, so that became the magic number.

To be clear, this money for a feasibility study is just the beginning and hardly guarantees that the County will move forward with forming an authority and use it to build a publicly owned fiber-to-the-home network. We need to get the RFP right so that we ask the right questions and get a good consultant with a proven track record (and this feasibility study may only be the preface to other more thorough and expensive studies). Nevertheless, it’s an essential first step and the first real indication to us that certain Board members are genuinely interested in solving the digital divide through decisive public action and long-term, strategic planning.

If the feasibility study comes back with positive results and Arlington County is able to move forward on planning and even initial deployment, we will be well poised to take advantage of any federal money that comes out of President Biden’s infrastructure plan. In case you haven’t read that, here is what is being proposed:

Revitalize America’s digital infrastructure:

The President believes we can bring affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband to every American through a historic investment of $100 billion. That investment will:

  • Build high-speed broadband infrastructure to reach 100 percent coverage. The President’s plan prioritizes building “future proof” broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas so that we finally reach 100 percent high-speed broadband coverage. It also prioritizes support for broadband networks owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments, non-profits, and co-operatives—providers with less pressure to turn profits and with a commitment to serving entire communities. Moreover, it ensures funds are set aside for infrastructure on tribal lands and that tribal nations are consulted in program administration. Along the way, it will create good-paying jobs with labor protections and the right to organize and bargain collectively.

It is not a foregone conclusion that the infrastructure bill will come out of the sausage making process entirely intact, but if a fraction of the above gets through, there is going to be a mad dash by localities to acquire personnel, equipment, etc. to start building broadband infrastructure. It would be wise to get out ahead.

FOIA Gem: Helpful Advice from VA Cable Lobby

The Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association (VCTA) is one of the staunchest opponents of public broadband in the state. They are a top donor to politicians like Kathy Byron, who famously tried to kill broadband authorities in the state with her 2017 Virginia Broadband Deployment Act. Moreover, in 2020, members of ArlFiber got to witness VCTA’s president Ray LaMura preside like a mafia don (flanked by a small army of telecom/cable lobbyist goons) over a meeting brokered by Del. Steve Heretick with a trio of his constituents from Portsmouth. The Portsmouth contingent had managed to cajole Del. Heretick to put in a bill that would make a small change in the VA Code that would allow Portsmouth’s city government to provide free wireless internet service at a couple of public housing units, which produced a ferocious reaction from the VA telecom industry. Shortly after that meeting, Heretick dropped the bill, and Del. Levine essentially shelved his far more extensive municipal broadband reform bill (there was a happy ending for Portsmouth – they formed a broadband authority not long after that and used CARES Act money to execute that public housing wifi project).

In light of all this, ArlFiber was quite surprised (and borderline amused) to find – via a FOIA request – a memo from Mr. La Mura informing Arlington County that VCTA’s reading of the VA Code says it’s perfectly legal for Arlington Public Schools to extend their wifi network to students in privately owned buildings:

While we are not privy to all the details, the background on this as we understand it is that Arlington County wanted to use new fixed wireless technology (CBRS) to provide free “private LTE” service to several buildings along Columbia Pike that APS and the Department of Technology Services had identified as being populated with students whose families were broadband deprived. Normally this would be impossible, since it would be a government-only network providing internet service to a private entity/subscriber, something that Article 5.1 (Provision of Certain Communications Services) of the VA Code does not allow unless the locality forms a separate entity called a “wireless service authority” or goes through the arduous process of being certificated as a municipal local exchange carrier (MLEC) (aside: we do not meet the qualifications for the latter, nor would the restrictions imposed on MLECs allow us to provide free service). Once Mr. La Mura sent the aforementioned memo blessing this, the County clearly felt reasonably comfortable moving forward with this project, which the Board approved at its November 2020 meeting.

So what does the memo say? According to the crack legal team at VCTA (who, granted, probably ghost wrote this law in the first place and thus should be considered authorities on it), Arlington County would not be in violation of the VA Code here, because this highly targeted wifi project does not quite meet the definition of “qualifying services” (as defined under the aforementioned Article 5.1):

On the face of it, this may seem like a rare instance of the telecom industry putting the public good ahead of returns for its investors; however, a close reading of the next page of the memo appears to us to reveal a different motivation: stop the County from considering a “wireless service authority” or anything else that might make this a permanent affair.

Comcast’s concern here most likely stemmed from the fact that the County had been informed in late October by the Director of the VA Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) that forming a broadband authority would be the best option for most communities looking to provide service to low-income families during the pandemic. Here is an excerpt from that memo:

Unfortunately, the County took the path of least resistance and went through with the project on the strength of what essentially is a promise from Comcast not to sue. This certainly expedited execution, but now we are left in a somewhat awkward position where Comcast will decide the fate of this fixed wireless setup once the COVID-19 emergency has officially ended. It’s possible that Comcast will allow this to stand even after the pandemic, but the cable lobby’s bill this past session (championed by Sen. Boysko) that essentially gives private providers exclusive right to partner with schools on low-income service projects would suggest that they are not likely to continue to turn a blind eye to our Columbia Pike “wifi blasters”, as County Manager Mark Schwartz is fond of calling them.

The County, of course, has one option open to it: form a broadband authority. As was mentioned above, Portsmouth formed an authority to do wireless projects at its public housing complexes. We could just transfer ownership of the CBRS equipment to the authority who would continue to provide (and could potentially upgrade this to a fiber-to-the-home setup) to low-income families in these buildings (and without all the “students-only” restrictions). In fact, cities across the U.S. that do have a community network have been doing exactly that even before the pandemic.

If you think forming an authority to safeguard these investments and working toward bridging the digital divide once and for all is a good idea, please sign on to our petition to the County Board to form a broadband authority for Arlington.

Amend SB 1225

Picture taken by ArlFiber

TLDR Version (Update below): State Senator Jennifer Boysko has introduced a bill (SB 1225) in the 2021 session of the Virginia General Assembly that will establish new rules for local schools on partnering with an internet service provider to connect households with disadvantaged students. These rules would exclude public broadband providers by virtue of only mentioning “private” broadband providers. In addition to a number of stopgap solutions, during the pandemic local school districts have partnered with public providers to get kids connected. For instance, Arlington Public Schools partnered with Arlington County’s public dark fiber network to extend wifi to several buildings with a high-concentration of low-income families. Boysko’s bill, if passed in current form, would at best complicate future such public-public partnerships and at worst eliminate them entirely. Update below.

The Pandemic and Public Education

Anyone scrolling through the headlines in VPAP’s VA News morning roundup since March would have noticed a goodly number of articles about schools throughout Virginia struggling to connect all of their students during the transition to online learning.

While certainly some of the most dire situations were in rural parts of Virginia where broadband internet service is completely absent, the highly wired urban parts had their own problems with home internet access for their students. A Washington Post article provided the following illustrative example back in May:

Yenifer Alvarado Portillo liked doing homework. School, the 5-year-old said, made her feel good. But ever since Arlington Public Schools shuttered, kindergarten has become a cause for tears. While other kids find their assignments online, Yenifer’s teacher has to relay them by phone. Even then, she can’t complete most of them because her family’s Northern Virginia home lacks Internet. She and her mother, Maria Silvia Portillo, huddle by the hotspot on Maria’s Galaxy cellphone. But the signal is just too weak.

The Portillos are hardly alone. A recent study commissioned by Arlington’s Department of Technology Services conservatively estimated that at least 16% of Arlington households do not have access to a fixed home broadband Internet connection. Moreover, the report found that those who are typically digitally underserved include older adults or adults with disabilities who typically have fixed incomes; lower-income households; and members of recent immigrant groups – particularly Hispanics, who are also more likely to have multiple school-age children. At the state level, a recent study by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia found that nearly 40% of all students without broadband live in or around Virginia’s cities.

This, of course, is the least talked about aspect of the digital divide: cost. While rural areas suffer from the telecoms’ neglect (despite years of public subsidies), the suburban and urban areas suffer from the telecoms’ monopoly pricing power. Now we are all paying the price for failing to treat broadband as a utility and essential infrastructure.

It is important to note, however, that, while the pandemic has turned the digital divide into a full blown catastrophe, the lack of home internet for so many was already a national crisis in need of urgent rectification. Studies on the “homework gap” have shown that students with internet at home consistently score higher in reading, math and science. According to a study conducted by the Quello Center at Michigan State University and Merit Network, which looked at the homework gap in 15 rural school districts in Michigan, students without home Internet access also had lower grades and test scores, demonstrated less digital skills competency, and were less likely to plan to attend post-secondary schooling, even after accounting for socioeconomic differences. And, this being the U.S., the digital divide and homework gap disproportionately affect children and communities of color.

StopGap Solutions

Given the need to transition all schooling to online platforms, local schools and governments scrambled for solutions to get all of their students connected. These solutions ranged from public hotspots to take-home mobile Wi-Fi devices (“MiFis”) to public subsidies for private low-income service packages like Comcast’s Internet Essentials.

These solutions, of course, all have their flaws. Public hotspots at schools and libraries presuppose things like means of private transport and/or favorable weather. MiFis tend to have insufficient capacity for multiple hours of streaming. Low-income internet packages from the big telecoms tend to have all manner of limitations on who can apply, in addition to providing inadequate customer support, especially for families who suffer from language and/or digital literacy barriers. And even if a low-income family could overcome those barriers, the slow speeds (e.g. 15 mbps down and 2 mbps up) are likely inadequate in situations where multiple students were trying to stream simultaneously.

Here in Arlington, the County government and APS pursued all of these avenues. What is relevant for this post, however, is that in May the County Board inked a deal with Comcast to use $500,000 of its CARES Act money to subsidize the $10/month for Internet Essentials for low-income families. As part of this deal, Comcast bumped up the speed to 25/3 mbps and relaxed some other fees and restrictions that usually accompany the service. It is not clear what the take rate on this program was or how many families were unable to take advantage of it because Comcast did not service their territory or building, but, given the urgency of the problem, it was still worth doing.

In addition to the County’s deal with Comcast, Arlington Public Schools signed an MOU with the County government to use the public dark fiber network ConnectArlington to extend wifi service to several buildings with low-income families at a cost of roughly $1.2 million. The students in those buildings will be able to access the network with their APS credentials and are expected to enjoy speeds of around 45/15 mbps, which is a considerable improvement over the speeds provided by Comcast Internet Essentials. Arlington County could likely do more using ConnectArlington, but it is currently hampered by state laws that place onerous restrictions on public networks (incidentally, the network would face no restrictions if County formed a broadband authority).

All of these measures were just stopgap solutions to a problem that has been in the making for decades, but it sure was nice to have as many tools at hand as possible, right? You would think that, but sadly it appears some of our legislators think otherwise.

SB1225

Despite the clear crisis we have seen with regard to internet access (and options) during the pandemic, state legislators submitted shockingly few bills on this topic this session (we count a total of five bills related directly or indirectly to broadband, not including budget amendments). Worst of all, one of those bills, SB1225, is set to decrease schools’ options for ensuring home internet for their students. This bill was submitted by Democratic Senator Jennifer Boysko, who is happens to be the chair of the state’s Broadband Advisory Council, and is patroned by a number of other prominent/senior members of the Senate.

On the face of it, SB1225 is aimed at making it easier for schools to partner with internet service providers for the purpose of getting families with disadvantaged students connected. The summary of the bill reads as follows:

Broadband services; education. Authorizes school boards to appropriate funds for the purposes of promoting, facilitating, and encouraging the expansion and operation of broadband services for educational purposes. The bill authorizes school boards to partner with private broadband service providers to promote, implement, and subsidize broadband for educational purposes to the households of students who would qualify for (i) a child nutrition program or (ii) any other program recognized or adopted by the local school board as a measuring standard to identify at-risk students.

You will notice that we bolded a particular word above: “private”. The inclusion of that word and the exclusion of the word “public” could very well complicate or even eliminate public schools’ ability to partner with public internet service providers (as we saw in the Arlington example above). Alarmed by that prospect, we took to Twitter to voice our opposition directly to Senator Boysko.

Senator Boysko was quick to respond, replying both by Tweet and email. Her response boiled down to claiming that we misunderstood the bill and that it is irrelevant to the issue of public providers because they are already covered under a different part of the VA Code.

The importance of bill language in a dillon’s rule state

The problem with Senator Boysko’s argument here is at least twofold.

The first is that the VA Code also already allows private internet providers to enter into MOUs with schools (under the Virginia Public Procurement Act), so it begs the question what the purpose of this bill is (and more importantly, who asked for it…). You’ll remember from above that Comcast had no problem signing an MOU with Arlington County for this purpose.

The second is that Virginia is a Dillon’s Rule state, so authorizing language is vitally important. The portion of the law that covers public provider MOUs is very broad. This proposed legislation by contrast is very specific, which arguably sets up a new set of rules that specifies who can enter into MOUs with schools for this purpose. If this bill passes and the language specifies only private providers, that will almost certainly be used by the corporate telecoms to argue that public providers do not have the right to do this specific thing in MOUs (or at least threaten lawsuits against school districts), which, given the importance of this issue, should be avoided at all costs. So let’s adhere to the precautionary principle.  

And even this is not the only potential problem with this legislation. As one public attorney mentioned to us in a personal communication:

The 600 lb. gorilla issue here is the First Amendment/Free Speech Clause of the Virginia Constitution, both of which trump this statute. If a school district allows one private speaker to send home flyers, then it has created a “limited public forum,” in which “the government may restrict access to ‘certain groups’ or to ‘discussion of certain topics,’ subject to two limitations: the government restrictions must be both reasonable and viewpoint neutral.” Child Evangelism Fellowship of Md., Inc. v. Montgomery Cnty. Pub. Sch., 457 F.3d 376, 383 (4th Cir. 2006). There is no question that the schools have to be viewpoint neutral: In other words, any internet provider in the geographic area the schools serve would be in a position to say that they should have equal access to the schools’ intramural mail system for the purposes of advertising availability in the area. You’d have a tough time arguing it isn’t covered under the First Amendment.

Ultimately, we would feel better if this law was at least amended to remove the word “private”, although given the fact that nothing is currently stopping private or public providers from entering into agreements with local governments and schools on providing internet services to unconnected students, it is probably best that this bill just be killed or withdrawn.


Update

Thank you to everyone who sent emails. Those letters to the subcommittee members definitely helped as they were referenced by Sen. Dunnavant during the hearing and led her to suggest potentially amending the bill’s language. Unfortunately, the bill passed out of the subcommittee unaltered and was then rubber stamped by the full Senate Education and Health Committee without letting us speak on it.

Here is a video of Thursday’s hearing, which began with a presentation by Senator Boysko herself:

A few comments on Sen. Boysko’s presentation.

Sen. Boysko claims that we need this legislation to clarify that schools can partner with private broadband providers to help connect disadvantaged students at home, yet she cites several examples of schools partnering with private broadband providers without any problem (e.g. Cox with schools in Roanoke). She claims that the problem is that some schools were reluctant to partner with private broadband providers because they were not sure whether the law allows it. If that is the case, it makes sense to make sure the language is written in a way to make sure all providers are covered and enabled. If the language is changed to include all broadband providers, nothing about the intent of this bill changes.

Here is what the language should have looked like:

SB 1225 Broadband services; education. 
B. Any school board may:
1. Promote and publicize the availability of broadband services, including private for educational purposes to parents and students, including the availability of any affordability programs or sponsored programs;

2. Provide promotional or informational materials for broadband services, including private to parents, students, and potential sponsors including brochures, flyers, and cable, internet, broadband, or other public service announcements, in any media, regarding locally available broadband service, including private offerings, including the availability of any affordability programs or sponsored programs, to encourage student use of broadband services for educational purposes;

3. Accept compensation, or in-kind donations of materials and services, from any broadband service, including private to reimburse the school board or other public body for its actual costs incurred in providing the materials described in subsection B 2;

4. Enter into agreements with local businesses, charitable groups, or broadband service providers, including private to promote sponsored programs to provide reduced cost or free broadband services for educational purposes to households of qualifying students. Under such agreements, the school board may award grants or subsidies to broadband service providers, including private to reduce or eliminate the cost of sponsored program broadband services provided to qualifying student households;

Christopher Mitchell on Community Broadband at Panel Discussion on Protecting Small Business During COVID-19

In December, ArlFiber cosponsored a panel discussion on saving small business during the pandemic, and arranged for Christopher Mitchell, director of Community Networks project at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, to speak on the topic of broadband, small business, and economic development. See his presentation at 1:23:12:

Click Image to Watch Presentation

Chief Technology Officer for Biden Administration: Form a Broadband Authority

Back in November, George Mason University held a panel discussion on the digital divide that featured Aneesh Chopra, an Arlington resident who will be Chief Technology Officer for the incoming Biden administration.

During his remarks, Chopra advised the assembled public servants, including Arlington County Board member and now Vice Chair Katie Cristol, to consider forming a broadband authority if they want to increase local options for improving broadband. (see his remarks at 00:28:00).

When Katie Cristol spoke, she praised ArlFiber for bringing this to the Board’s attention, and wondered aloud whether the community would like a public option for broadband (see her remarks at 1:13:40).

Click image to go to recording

A small step toward community broadband for Arlington?

©2014 Rob Rogers. Reprinted with permission.

At its Recessed Meeting last night, the Arlington County Board may have taken a tiny step forward toward community broadband.

Background:

Before we dive into that, though, first some background. ArlFiber has been advocating for and exploring the implementation of community broadband in Arlington and Virginia for about the last year and half. While we were making some modest progress on a coop project, the pandemic made us realize that a bunch of amateur activists with no technical expertise or ready-access to capital was not going to make this happen on the scale and at the speed necessary to ameliorate the crisis and put us on a fundamentally different path for the future.

As such, we switched gears and began advocating for the County Board to form a broadband authority, which for all intents and purposes is a legal entity that allows local governments to provide service to private entities. Our view is that an authority could utilize the existing dark fiber network to provide service directly to underserved areas (in the short term through fixed wireless solutions and in the long term with fiber to the home), with an eye to eventually offering service to the whole community. In any event, we a saw this as a much better option than paying Comcast indefinitely for its Internet Essentials package with its woefully inadequate 25/3 mbps service and the resort to inefficient/inequitable hotspots and mifis (we are not criticizing the County government on this – they have definitely done a lot to make the best of a bad situation).

We started off this journey by launching a petition and working with the Arlington Dems’ Black Caucus to organize a forum on municipal broadband and the digital divide this past August, which was attended by a goodly number of residents, including member of the county board. In light of the positive response we got re: the forum and the jump in petition signatures, we thought it was time to take it to Board. After gathering what we felt like was sufficient information to make a strong pitch, we asked the board members for a meeting in mid September.

Suffice it to say, the two board members in attendance were more than a bit skeptical, but the reservations they expressed during the meeting prompted us to do some more digging. We were able to connect with a number of officials working at existing broadband authorities and some lawyers that advise them. They provided a lot of useful information, which we were then able to impart on the next set of board members with whom we met (fun fact: you can’t gather all the board members together to talk without making it a public meeting). Since we had our act together a bit more, the second meeting with board members was more productive and led to a sustained dialogue, whereby we were able to exchange information back and forth as we collected it.

While we were blissfully plodding along under the assumption that we might be on a path to an community-wide public option for the internet, last week we suddenly got word that the Board was moving forward on a feasibility study, which seemed to propose using a non-profit to provide free internet to committed affordable housing units. Moreover, it was a consent agenda item for Saturday’s Regular Meeting, which meant there would be no public comments and just the usual rubber stamp. This sent us scrambling to find out more information and put in calls with staff and contact some board members to ask them to pull it from the consent agenda so we would have more time to consider it. Fortunately, it was pulled, which gave us time to digest it and consider what it would mean for our more grandiose agenda of a community-wide public option.

Consent Agenda Item #34

That takes us to the matter at hand. At the Recessed Meeting this past Tuesday night (October 20), the Arlington County Board had a hearing on Consent Agenda Item #34. What was to be discussed was whether the County should spend $60,000 of Pay as You Go funds to conduct a feasibility study on using the County’s existing dark fiber to provide high-speed, reliable service to residents in two affordable housing complexes (Gates of Ballston and Arlington View Terrace). The feasibility study, to be carried out by New Urbana, is aimed at doing a deep dive into the technological aspects of providing different types of connection to residents in the building, how much the different options would cost, and how long it would take to deploy them. As part of the feasibility study, New Urbana is supposed to identify a potential third party non-profit provider to implement (and replicate elsewhere) this project based on the results of the study.

In response to this, ArlFiber sent an SOS to its burgeoning network of supporters to ask for people to sign up to make public statements. Our goal was not to torpedo the initiative, but simply to ask the Board to think bigger than providing service to committed affordable units (CAFs), since the digital divide in Arlington goes well beyond the residents of those buildings. Moreover, we believe that any strategic initiative involving extending broadband infrastructure to the community should be focused on separating infrastructure from services. Regardless, we ultimately agreed with staff that this study would provide some crucial data that could inform a larger strategic vision for building a genuine public option for the whole community.

Public Comment:

We managed to marshal eight speakers from various backgrounds who all delivered diverse messages – without any prior coordination of those messages! You can watch a clip of the public comments here:

Synopses/key points from the speakers:

  1. Kathy Scruggs (text here): Retired Arlington teacher who is part of a group called “Abuelitas” with other retired teachers to tutor English language learners. Students mostly only have a phone to connect. 750 families with students are still being denied the right to a free public education. This study is too little too late. Asks what will be done but what about small businesses and first-generation college students? Calls for the board to form a broadband authority.
  2. Jeanine Brundage: Retired Arlington teacher working with “Abuelitas” to tutor elementary school English language learners, tells the board about the difficulties her students have getting online and using APS’s multi-layered onion of portals and programs for remote learning without reliable internet access. Applauds Board for steps taken, but calls for a more comprehensive, sustainable, long-term solution; i.e. a broadband authority to connect everyone.
  3. Charles Head (text here): Arlington resident with an interest in computers. Tells the Board that the U.S. is already paying the highest prices for internet in the world, which in Arlington has produced a digital divide whereby 10-16% of households cannot afford to connect. Broadband access is no longer a luxury, but an essential utility. Our duopoly market holds us hostage and this won’t change if decisions are left to private enterprise. Other localities have shown the value of a public provider via broadband authorities. Calls on Board to get the facts on authorities and to consider them as part of this study.
  4. Tim Dempsey (text here): Speaking on behalf of ArlFiber. Explains that pandemic inspired group to call for an authority. Approves of feasibility study as a way to provide crucial data for more strategic decisions. Calls on county board to expand the study to explore broadband authority as a possible service provider or conduct a separate study looking at whether an authority could build a county-wide, fiber-to-the-home, open access, software defined network to separate public infrastructure from private service, referencing the “Ammon model”.
  5. Detta Kissel (text here): Arlington resident. Reminds Board that ten years ago they made a fateful decision to break from Comcast to build their own network which now provides them superior service and has saved them millions of dollars. What about the rest of us?! Tells Board we are at a crossroads in deciding our internet future, and it would make more sense to form a broadband authority and create a community-wide option rather than continue to rely on reactive, piecemeal solutions.
  6. Jeff Elkner (text here): Arlington Mill resident and IT teacher at Career Center. Even before the pandemic, his students with less internet access were at a disadvantage. Much worse now. Inequality in general is growing and at historic heights. Relying on “the market” and “the private sector” will not solve these problems. Regrets that the Board has rolled over for the biggest tech oligarch in the country. We need to rely on ourselves as a community which means a community-owned and community-wide solution: a broadband authority.
  7. Dan Shuhler (text here): Arlington resident. Relays his experience of living in apartment buildings in Arlington where he had no choice for internet because one ISP had a building-wide monopoly. Tells the board that he did not know just how bad he was being ripped off till he attended the ArlFiber/Arl Dems forum. Based on the prices cited by the Eastern Shore of VA Broadband Authority and the Ammon, ID municipal network, he estimates he would have saved $12,600 over that time.
  8. Caroline Corum: Arlington resident. Tells Board that her telecom bill is her biggest monthly expense. Internet is an essential service to help people access various services and information – jobs, health care, etc. Calls on board to form an authority that treats internet as a essential utility.
  9. Terry Bratt (letter here): Not a speaker but submitted letter. Long time educator and Arlington resident. Pandemic’s silver lining is that it shone a light on digital divide that was so bright that it could no longer be ignored. Writes that this feasibility study is a step in the right direction, but the goal needs to be much broader to include many others suffering from insufficient access or high costs. Calls for a broadband authority.

Board discussion:

After a brief interlude to discuss a different pulled consent agenda item, the Board heard from staff on the proposed digital equity project (Item #34), after which a fairly lengthy discussion ensued.

While we provide a rough summary of the various participants’ comments below, the main point we’d like to make is that the County Manager and the Board members were forced to address and make continual reference to the broadband authority as an idea, while also acknowledging that having only two internet providers for Arlington (i.e. a “duopoly”) produces bad outcomes for consumers (and as resident Dan Shuhler pointed out above, many apartment buildings only have one choice, whereas board member Matt de Ferranti implies that even two choices is fairly meaningless). That said, some highlights and our responses in italics:

After Mr. Halewski’s presentation on the proposal, County Manager Schwartz remarks that we should not get hung up on the question of what “vehicle” (broadband authority [BBA] or non-profit) we use for executing this project and bridging the digital divide. He then calls on the county attorney Steve MacIsaac to explain what a BBA could offer and some of the “benefits and detriments of that”, which Mr. MacIsaac punts to the deputy county attorney MinhChau Corr. Ms. Corr then proceeds to explain that BBAs are a “legal construct” whose legitimacy is not in doubt, but opines that, while this study does not preclude the creation of a BBA, it is inappropriate for a small scale project like the one being proposed because there are “liability issues” and that forming an authority would not answer questions about the costs of connection and ongoing operations.

ArlFiber in its conversations with the board has repeatedly stressed the need to form an authority to do small scale projects to test the waters toward a more comprehensive network. Forming an authority is a fairly quick and easy affair. Most are formed and approved by the SCC in three or four months (as a technical matter, authorities are different from regular corporations in that they technically come into existence upon passage of the resolution by the locality’s governing body. All the SCC does is register that it happened. The SCC registration has some important legal protections, but it isn’t the event that brings the entity into existence; that is the action of the local governing body (board of supervisors or city council)). Several localities have formed authorities and put them on the shelf for a while, or just used them off and on for occasional projects where local governments wanted to extend from a public facility to a nearby public housing area with just a few units. Middlesex County, for example, just uses its as a conduit for state grants and occasional local government public-private partnerships of various types. The Board’s current project is by no means free of “liability issues”, since the two buildings under consideration are already served by Comcast who will not take kindly to the County subsidizing a third party to provide additional service to said buildings. Lastly, throughout the proceedings, there were multiple references to the complexities of operating a public network, yet the head of ConnectArlington, Jack Belcher, was never called on to comment on this issue.

Mark Schwartz responds that he understands that there is a harmful duopoly situation in the Arlington telecom market, but he then goes on to explain that certain broadband infrastructure (“blasters”) has been put into place in areas along Columbia Pike to boost existing hotspot signals, which cost a million dollars or more; therefore, one should not assume that having a broadband authority would be cheaper or easier.

While we do not pretend to have any technical expertise in these matters, ArlFiber has only ever asserted that having a broadband authority would allow the county to use its existing fiber assets to provide service directly to certain customers or buildings (which it currently cannot do), which is a slightly different proposition than increasing the range of general hotspot signals. The current study should actually help determine some of the technical aspects and financial costs of that, albeit without studying possibly vehicles for implementing it (like a broadband authority).

Board member reactions:

– Matt: in support of this proposal because it does not foreclose on the possibility of a broadband authority and will help us better understand the technical and financial implications of such an approach;

– Christian: appreciates the speakers who came out to support expansion of internet access, appreciates the mention of the broader problem of internet affordability, acknowledges that there is a duopoly in the Arlington market; the question is not whether we can do “it” (community broadband), but the most “efficacious” way to do it;

– Takis: appreciates that the study will provide crucial information on how we might provide this as a utility, asks 1) why these two properties were chosen, 2) why New Urbana was chosen, 3) what the focus of the study will be in terms of connecting (wired vs wireless), and 4) what will be the next step (answers: 1 – variety of building types and distance from the county’s dark fiber, 2 – recommended by Connected DMV, 3 – will look at different types of connection like FTTH and fixed wireless and price points, 4 – study to be finished by end of November, discussion with community, speakers from tonight) ;

-Katie: appreciates that the study will give an idea of the cost of different options, emphasizes that this is not the “alpha and omega” of the County’s thinking on solutions (i.e. it is supposed to be “scalable”), credits ArlFiber for raising broader issues of affordability and accessibility, asks whether people who can afford internet on the “private market” are interested in a different option provided by an authority, this will come down to cost and the product on offer, admits that, due to her exclusive focus on lower income demographics, she would not have otherwise considered broader community, so this study may help guide that discussion, excited to expand this beyond just families with students.

-Matt: asks for clarification of how long the study will actual take given the reference to 12 months in certain parts of the agreement (deputy county attorney explains that this is pro forma, contractor asserts it will be done in 6 weeks). Matt makes reference to duopoly that served his last apartment building, makes reference to the problem of privately owned infrastructure;

– Christian: asks New Urbana president Costello about future projections of costs (Costello responds that technology is changing, possible to do fixed wireless with fiber backhaul, you will not have “end all, be all” for 15-20 years);

– Libby: we all think internet should be a utility like water and electricity. Concludes discussion and calls for a vote, which passes.

Conclusions:

It simply is not possible for us to convey what a sea change we saw in the discussion that night. The previous skepticism that we had heard in previous conversations had morphed into a low key acceptance of the broadband authority as a legitimate path to these goals and the non-student divide as an equally pressing issue.

While the future of broadband in Arlington is still uncertain, we take pride in the fact that we have at least changed the conversation and planted some seeds in the minds of our local officials. We are excited to learn the results of this feasibility study, but ultimately want this data to inform a more strategic initiative that not only considers the entire county but adjacent “political subdivisions” that might want to be part of a regional broadband authority that builds out fiber to the home/premises to all homes and housing units, while allowing private providers compete over virtual networks to provide service.

Lastly, it is important to note that, during the current crisis, fixed wireless solutions may be the most cost efficient and expedient way to provide service, but the ultimate goal of any true community broadband project should be fiber to the home. Fiber is future-proof and is best able to deliver high-speed service.

We need your support!

Dear supporters!

We need your help tomorrow (Tuesday, October 20) at the Arlington County Board Recessed Meeting at 6:30 p.m.

The County Board will be considering a consent agenda item​ on whether to conduct a feasibility study on using the ConnectArlington network to provide free service to residents of two committed affordable housing complexes. 

We support this measure, BUT we want to call on the County Board to expand the study to investigate whether a broadband authority could serve as the vehicle for executing this project (and eventually going beyond the CAFs to providing service to the entire community). 

We need concerned community members to sign up to speak at the meeting and call on the board to think big and pursue a comprehensive solution for the entire community: a public internet option. 

Meeting info/logistics:

Here is a link to the agenda for the county board’s recessed meeting:
http://arlington.granicus.com/GeneratedAgendaViewer.php?view_id=2&event_id=1487

It is Item 34: “Allocation of Digital Equity Fund funds and approval of a grant agreement with the New Urbana Institute for the completion of a feasibility study for a non-profit high-speed internet service provider serving two affordable housing complexes, Gates of Ballston, 4108 4th St. N. and Arlington View Terrace, 1429 S. Rolfe St.”

The hearings on consent agenda items begin at 6:30 p.m. Item 34 is second on the list, so they could get to it as early as 6:45 p.m. (depends on how long it takes to get through the first item).  

Here is the link to the Board Report (with copy of scope of work and other signature pages): 

The link to sign up to speak at the Recessed Meeting is here:

You have to reference the Item number (#34) in your request to speak form and it will give you the opportunity to upload your statement. Once you have submitted a request to speak, you should receive a link to join the Microsoft Teams conference call (you can either download the app for this or open it up in Microsoft Edge browser – or Safari if you have a Mac). Check your spam folder, since many communications from county email addresses end up in for some reason (at least for me). 

For consent agenda items, the time limit for speaking is 3 minutes. Be sure to be respectful and thank them for the work they have done on this already. 

Background:

Before the current pandemic began, Arlington had a serious digital divide. County staff estimated that this was 10% of households and in a new report published in August it estimated this could be up to 16% based on Census data. These households are primarily low-income ($75K or less) and are disproportionately people of color (Black, Latinx, (immigrants) and English Learners. The current economic crisis has likely increased the number of people without access. Attempts by the County and School Boards to fix this (public hotspots, take home hotspots (“mifis”), subsidized subscriptions to Comcast’s Internet Essentials service) are commendable but still falling short. APS staff are acknowledging that while 97% of students are connecting, a sizable number are still having trouble. In addition to the lack of access and its disproportionate impact on low-income residents (of color and English Learners), there is insufficient competition in the internet service provider market. For instance, the County’s Broadband Advisory Committee noted in their 2017 report that 60% of commercial buildings in the County have only one choice for provider (Verizon). This de facto monopoly results in high prices and lackluster service for everyone. In a recent study of the world broadband market, researchers at The Open Technology Institute stated bluntly that the monopolized market structure of telecommunications in the U.S. is the reason Americans pay the highest costs for internet service in the world. Adding insult to injury, these telecommunication corporations use the considerable revenues derived from this monopoly pricing to lobby at the federal level against consumer protections like net neutrality

In the early 2010s, Arlington County made the wise decision to end its relationship with Comcast and build its own public fiber optic network (ConnectArlington), which currently provides internet access to county owned buildings (e.g. county offices, schools, community centers). This network is extremely state of the art and delivers speeds of 10 gbps download and upload. Unfortunately, despite having this amazing existing asset, the part of the state law under which it was formed makes it difficult and needlessly complicated for the County to try to use its public network to provide service directly to private entities. 

As a result, they are looking for ways to use the network to provide service to low-income families and bridge the digital divide as quickly as possible. Their current approach, on which they will be voting this coming Tuesday, is to pay a consultant to produce a feasibility study on how the County’s existing dark fiber could be used to connect and provide free service to residents of two committed affordable housing complexes (owned by AHC, Inc.) and how much the different options would cost, while also identifying a third party that could potentially implement it based on the results of the study.  

Our position:

ArlFiber’s immediate position on the proposed feasibility study is as follows:

1) expand this study to investigate whether a broadband authority can be used as a possible vehicle for executing this project; or

2) conduct a more comprehensive and strategic study that assesses the possibility of building a county-wide, fiber-to-the-premises, open access network using a broadband authority as the vehicle. 

Our overall position is that the County should form a broadband authority under the Virginia Wireless Service Authority Act and transfer the existing ConnectArlington network over to the authority and have the authority provide service directly to whomever it wants and to whomever wants it. Other localities in Virginia are already doing this and the State Corporation Commission has approved it. Moreover, we are advocating that the broadband authority create a fiber to the premises/home, open access, software defined network that separates infrastructure from service. Under this model, the broadband authority would own, maintain, and operate the physical infrastructure of the network, but use software defined networks to allow private companies to compete to provide service. This model was invented by the city government of Ammon, Idaho and has led to a precipitous drop in the cost of high-speed internet there, so much so that Ammon is now one of the cheapest internet service providers in the world(!).