ArlFiber Resolution on Forming a Broadband Authority for Arlington

The following resolution was submitted to the Arlington Democrats’ steering committee for consideration for adoption:

Resolution on forming a broadband authority for Arlington County to construct an open access software defined network that ensures high-speed, affordable internet service for all residents and businesses.

Whereas,

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that the digital divide is a national emergency[1];

Before the current crisis began, Arlington County’s Department of Information Technology had estimated that 10 percent of households did not have internet at home[2];

The decision to conduct at least the first semester of the new school year online threatens to leave many school children behind[3];

The County and APS’s efforts to ensure internet access to low-income families are commendable but do not serve as a sustainable long-term solution[4];

Even before the pandemic hit, uneven access to internet among students has led to a homework and testing gap[5];

Current telecommunications legislation in Virginia prevents Arlington County from using its dark fiber network to provide service to privately-owned buildings[6];

Residents and businesses in Arlington have very little choice in their internet provider[7];

There is a correlation between an office building’s range of choice in internet service providers and its vacancy rate[8];

The County’s strategy for generating commercial revenues from its ConnectArlington dark fiber network have so far been unsuccessful[9];

Incumbent telecom providers have de facto monopolies over the local telecom market which allow them to charge exorbitant prices for internet service and provide little incentive for improving service quality[10];

The Virginia Democratic Party passed a resolution on expanding community broadband at its 2020 state convention[11];

The joint task force appointed by Senator Sanders and Vice President Biden has called for major investments in community broadband[12];

The Virginia Wireless Service Authority Act grants towns, cities, and counties the ability to form a “wireless service authority” that can provide high speed data and Internet access service, including through a wireline fiber optic connection[13]; 

Several counties and cities in Virginia have already formed “wireless service authorities” to address digital divide issues in their jurisdictions, the two most successful of which are the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority and the Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority[14];

Several public broadband networks in United States have been ranked as the fastest in the country, if not the world[15];

Several public broadband networks in the United States have been very innovative in bridging the digital divide[16];

Community broadband networks act as a not-for-profit public interest utility and observe net neutrality and protect their users’ privacy[17];

The internet should be treated as a not-for-profit public utility that is available to everyone at home at a price they can afford (including free)[18];

An Arlington broadband authority could construct a software defined open access network that is publicly owned and operated, but with a choice of private service providers for subscribers to choose from[19];

A non-discriminatory public access network built and operated by a broadband authority but serviced by private third parties would be in compliance with Virginia telecommunication laws[20];

Other publicly owned, open access networks such as UTOPIA in Utah and the municipal network in Ammon, ID have built software defined open access networks that are considered to be among the fastest and most innovative in the country[21];

Private providers on the Ammon, ID municipal network offer subscriptions of 1 Gbps symmetrical for as low as $10 a month [22].

Therefore, be it resolved that the Arlington County Board should seek to increase local internet choice and bridge the digital divide by forming a broadband authority under the powers granted to it by the Virginia Wireless Service Authority Act that seeks to create a software defined open access network that in turn is publicly owned and operated but provides service through third party internet service providers, based on the best practices of models like UTOPIA and Ammon, ID.

References:

Adelstein et al. “Effective Utilization of Dark Fiber: Report and Recommendations Presented to the County Manager and County Board.” Arlington Broadband Advisory Committee. Undated. https://bit.ly/2LoZV7L

“Arlington Broadband Authority”. ArlFiber. Undated. https://arlfiber.org/arlington-broadband-authority/

Baller, Jim, et al. State Restrictions on Community Broadband Services or Other Public Communications Initiatives. BALLER STOKES & LIDE , 2019, p.5, https://www.baller.com/wp-content/uploads/BallerStokesLideStateBarriers7-1-20.pdf.

Chao, Becky and Lukas Pietrzak. “The Cost of Connectivity in Ammon, Idaho”. New America: Open Technology Institute, 22 January 2020, https://www.newamerica.org/oti/reports/cost-connectivity-ammon-idaho/.

“Digital Equity – Connecting Arlington”, Arlington County Department of Information Technology, Undated, https://departments.arlingtonva.us/dts/digital-equity/

Gore, Jeffrey. “Wireless Service Authorities and the The Virginia Wireless Service Authority Act.” Virginia Association of Counties, 2008, https://bit.ly/33czKqJ.

Leerssen, Paddy and David A. Talbot. “Enabling Competition & Innovation on a City Fiber Network”. Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society Research Paper. 2017. https://bit.ly/2DKkHKE.

Lennet, Benjamin et al. “The Art of the Possible: An Overview of Public Broadband Options”. New America Foundation, 6 May 2014, https://www.newamerica.org/oti/policy-papers/the-art-of-the-possible-an-overview-of-public-broadband-options/.

Stanley, Jay. “The Public Internet Option: How Local Governments Can Provide Network Neutrality, Privacy, and Access for All”. American Civil Liberties Union, 2018, https://bit.ly/35uoebK.


[1] Katrina vanden Heuvel. “America’s Digital Divide is an Emergency”. Washington Post, 23 June 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/06/23/americas-digital-divide-is-an-emergency/. Daniel Castro, “Coronavirus Pandemic Exposes Why America’s Digital Divide is Dangerous”. USA Today, 1 April 2020, https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2020/04/01/coronavirus-pandemic-shows-dangers-americas-digital-divide-column/5093365002/.

[2]”Digital Equity – Connecting Arlington”, Arlington County Department of Information Technology, Undated, https://departments.arlingtonva.us/dts/digital-equity/

[3]Hannah Natanson, “Schools Are Some Families’ Best Hope for Internet Access, but Virginia Laws Are Getting in the Way”. Washington Post, 26 May 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/schools-are-some-families-best-hope-for-internet-access-but-virginia-laws-are-getting-in-the-way/2020/05/22/520cc46c-95f3-11ea-82b4-c8db161ff6e5_story.html.

[4]”COVID-19 and Digital Equity in Arlington”, ArlFiber, 17 July 2020, https://arlfiber.org/2020/07/17/covid-19-and-digital-equity-in-arlington/.

[5]The Pew Research Center found in 2018 that 17 percent of all teenagers had been unable to finish homework assignments because they lacked an appropriate computer or Internet connection. A high-speed connection was lacking in 35 percent of households with school-aged children and an income below $30,000; broadband was absent in just 6 percent of school-aged households with incomes above $75,000. A separate Pew study last year found that a quarter of low-income households relied solely on smartphones to go online. Data caps and small screens on those devices get in the way of many educational and work opportunities. On the homework gap, see Monica Anderson and Andrew Perrin, “Nearly One-in-Five Teens Can’t Always Finish Their Homework Because of the Digital Divide”, Pew Research Center, 26 October 2018, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/10/26/nearly-one-in-five-teens-cant-always-finish-their-homework-because-of-the-digital-divide/ and Monica Anderson and Madhumitha Kumar, “Digital Divide Persists Even as Lower-income Americans Make Gains in Tech Adoption”, Pew Research Center, 7 May 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/05/07/digital-divide-persists-even-as-lower-income-americans-make-gains-in-tech-adoption/. Middle and high school students with high-speed Internet access at home have more digital skills, higher grades, and perform better on standardized tests, such as the SAT. Regardless of socioeconomic status, students who cannot access the Internet from home or are dependent on a cell phone for Internet access do worse in school and are less likely to attend college or university. The deficit in digital skills contributes to lower student interest in careers related to science, technology, engineering, and math. On this testing gap, see Hampton et al, “Broadband and Student Performance Gaps”, Quello Center, 3 March 2020, http://quello.msu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Broadband_Gap_Quello_Report_MSU.pdf. For a useful overview of these studies, see Doug Dawson, “The Homework Gap is Not Just a Rural Problem”, POTs and PANs, 22 July 2020, https://bit.ly/2CUWPXJ.

[6]Baller, Jim, et al. “State Restrictions on Community Broadband Services or Other Public Communications Initiatives”. Baller, Stokes & Lide, 2019, p.5, https://bit.ly/2OOBPo1.

[7] Adelstein et al. “Effective Utilization of Dark Fiber: Report and Recommendations Presented to the County Manager and County Board.” Arlington Broadband Advisory Committee. Undated. https://bit.ly/2LoZV7L.

[8] Ibid. According to the Arlington Broadband Advisory Committee’s report, “60% of the 330 [commercial] buildings have no competitive, fiber-based service provider options (i.e., they are only served by Verizon)”.

[9] Ibid. This was a core message of the advisory committee’s report. For more, see Koma, Alex. “Arlington Spent $4.1 Million on a 10-Mile Dark Fiber Network, But No One’s Using It”. ArlNow. 7 February 2019. https://bit.ly/2Rj7FM2 and Kienbaum, Katie. “Arlington Dark Fiber Network at Crossroads, ARLnow Reports”. Community Networks. Institute for Local Self-Reliance. 28 February 2019. https://bit.ly/2rfi7cX

[10]Richard Greenfield. “How the Cable Industry Became a Monopoly”. Fortune. 19 May 2015. https://fortune.com/2015/05/19/cable-industry-becomes-a-monopoly/. See also H. Trostle and Christopher Mitchell. “Profiles of Monopoly: Big Telecom and Cable”. Community Networks, 31 July 2018, https://muninetworks.org/reports/edit-report-profiles-monopoly-big-telecom-and-cable and Ry Marcattilio-McCracken, “Fighting Monopoly Power: How States and Cities Can Beat Back Corporate Control and Build Thriving Communities”, Community Networks, 21 July 2020, https://muninetworks.org/content/fighting-monopoly-power-how-states-and-cities-can-beat-back-corporate-control-and-build.

[11]”Supports Expanding Community Broadband and Ensuring Affordable, High-Speed Internet for All”. DPVA State Resolutions Package 2020. Undated. pp. 38-39. https://vademocrats.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/DPVAConventionResolutionsFinal2020.pdf. See also, “VADP Adopts Community Broadband Resolution”. ArlFiber. 16 July 2020. https://arlfiber.org/2020/07/16/vadp-adopts-community-broadband-resolution/.

[12] Wendy Davis. “Biden-Sanders Task Force Backs Net Neutrality, Municipal Broadband”. MediaPost. 9 July 2020. https://www.mediapost.com/publications/article/353468/biden-sanders-task-force-backs-net-neutrality-mun.html.

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

[14] On the Roanoke Broadband Authority, c.f. Gonzalez, Lisa. “Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority: Progress Made, All Indicators Favorable”. Community Networks, 11 December 2018, https://bit.ly/34NhCp0. On the success of the Eastern Shore Broadband Authority, see Trostle, Hannah. “Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority Improves Connectivity.” Community Networks, 16 February 2016, https://bit.ly/38aei9o.

[15]Fogden, Tom. “Why Chattanooga Has the Fastest Internet in the US.” Tech.com, 21 Aug. 2018, https://bit.ly/2rjdKxc. Accessed 1 Nov. 2019; Gonzalez, Lisa. “Munis Make PCMag Fastest ISPs List Again.” Community Networks, 3 July 2019, https://bit.ly/33cnqGZ. Ry Marcattilio-McCracken. “Cedar Falls Utility Tops PCMag Fastest ISPs List.” Community Networks. 23 June 2020. https://muninetworks.org/content/cedar-falls-utility-tops-pcmag-fastest-isps-list.

[16] On using publicly owned networks to bridge the digital divide, especially among school children, c.f. Svitavsky,

Kate. “Wilson’s Greenlight Provides Affordable Internet Access to Public Housing Residents.” Community Networks,

15 Dec. 2016, https://bit.ly/2pKC4Yk.

[17] On using public broadband to preserve net neutrality and privacy, c.f. Schneider, Nathan. “A People-Owned Internet Exists. Here Is What It Looks Like.” The Guardian, 26 July 2017, https://bit.ly/2Db9T8f, and Berman, David Elliot, and Victor Pickard. “Cities and States Take up the Battle for an Open Internet.” The Conversation, 14 Nov. 2019, https://bit.ly/2KP7dRD.

[18]Mat Lawrence et al. “Democratic digital infrastructure.” The Next System Project. 18 May 2020. https://thenextsystem.org/democratic-digital-infrastructure

[19] Leerssen, Paddy and David A. Talbot. “Enabling Competition & Innovation on a City Fiber Network”. Berkman

Klein Center for Internet & Society Research Paper. 2017. https://bit.ly/2DKkHKE. See also,Woodruff, Jay. “The City with the Best Fiber-Optic Network in America Might Surprise You.” Fast Company. 21 October 2019. https://bit.ly/353oT40.

[20] This is explained in the “What is a Broadband Authority” section at “Arlington Broadband Authority”. ArlFiber. Undated. https://arlfiber.org/arlington-broadband-authority/.

[21] Ibid. On the UTOPIA network, see Drew Clark. “UTOPIA Fiber: A Model Open-Access Network”. Broadband Communities Magazine. November/December 2019. https://www.bbcmag.com/community-broadband/utopia-fiber-a-model-open-access-network.. See also, Katie Kienbaum. “Ammon Fiber Optics Declared Consumer Product of the Year in Idaho”. Community Networks. 1 November 2018. https://muninetworks.org/content/ammon-fiber-optics-declared-consumer-product-year-idaho.

[22] Chao, Becky and Lukas Pietrzak. “The Cost of Connectivity in Ammon, Idaho”. New America: Open Technology Institute, 22 January 2020, https://www.newamerica.org/oti/reports/cost-connectivity-ammon-idaho/.

Sun Gazette Letter to the Editor

The following letter to the editor from an ArlFiber Collective member was recently published by the Sun Gazette (online – Insidenova):

https://www.insidenova.com/opinion/letters_to_editor/letter-arlington-needs-to-go-all-in-providing-internet-service/article_d8bffc46-cb8a-11ea-ace8-d35c148461b0.html

Letter: Arlington needs to go all in providing Internet service

  • SUN GAZETTE NEWSPAPERS
  • Jul 22, 2020

Editor: The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the many perils and injustices created by the digital divide in the U.S. 

This divide is largely attributable to our reliance on highly monopolized markets to provide Internet access based solely on the consideration of profits and shareholder returns. We need a public option that will at once affirm the principle that the Internet is a vital utility worthy of public investment and control while creating actual competition and innovation to bring affordable high-speed Internet to all residents and businesses currently unserved or underserved by the incumbent telecommunications corporations operating here in Arlington.

In the early 2010s, the Arlington County government itself pursued a public option for its own buildings when it broke with Comcast in favor of building the ConnectArlington dark-fiber network. Instead of paying Comcast $500,000 to provide bare-bones service to low-income families for at least the next year – as has been announced by the county government – we should leverage the existing public network to do it.

Under the provisions of the Virginia Wireless Service Authority Act, the Arlington government can form a broadband authority and convert the existing network into an open-access network that connects to all buildings and residences in the county. 

An Arlington broadband authority could lay the fiber to the premises and light it, and use software-defined networks to have third-party ISPs compete to provide service. This model was pioneered in Ammon, Idaho, and has been highly successful.

To learn more, see the Website at https://arlfiber.org/arlington-broadband-authority/.

Tim Dempsey, Arlington

Dempsey is a member of the ArlFiber collective.

ArlFiber Press Release on Forming a Broadband Authority for Arlington

Click here for a formal document.

It’s time for Arlington County to form a broadband authority

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that the digital divide in our country is a national emergency. The mass transition to online work and communication rapidly split us all up into internet haves and have nots. This was most starkly highlighted in the education arena as students were taken out of classrooms and forced to attend class and complete assignments online. Here in Arlington, given what the county already knew about the state of connectivity in many of its poorest neighborhoods, this was inevitably going to produce unjust outcomes for the many students who lack access to high-speed internet and/or the proper devices at home. The recent announcement by the superintendent of APS that the fall semester will be conducted online means that this will be an ongoing problem. We applaud the County Board and APS for their efforts to address this problem through hotspots at public buildings, take-home devices, and the expansion of Comcast Internet Essentials to the neediest families, but all of these approaches leave much to be desired. We need a better, long-term solution to this seemingly intractable problem.

Arlington County should use its existing dark fiber network to ensure that all members of the public in Arlington have adequate, affordable access to the internet. Arlington County currently has a dark fiber network that it uses to provide high-speed internet connection to county-owned buildings and facilities. It is this network that has been utilized to set up the public hotspots that students and others have used to access the internet during the pandemic. Existing telecommunication laws in Virginia bar the county from using this network to provide internet access directly to non-publicly owned buildings and residences. Fortunately, there is a workaround: The Virginia Wireless Service Authority Act. This law allows cities and counties (individually or in combination) to establish a “wireless service authority” that, despite the name, would allow the county to provide wireline fiber-to-the-premises connection to any building it desires. This would have to operate as a non-discriminatory open access network, but that in itself could open up robust competition with the help of software defined networks. Several cities and counties have already used this law to establish their own “wireless service authorities”, with the most advanced and successful examples being in Roanoke Valley and on the Eastern Shore.

Establishing a broadband authority will take time, so the County Board should begin to act immediately. Arlington County decided several years ago to sever its relationship with Comcast and provide service to its own buildings through a municipal network, which has not only saved us money, but improved service as well. Its residents should equally not have to rely on monopolistic, shareholder-owned corporations for their internet service (who, by the way, spend our money lobbying against things like net neutrality and privacy). This pandemic has made it clear that we must treat the internet as a public, not-for-profit utility that is available to everyone at home at a price they can afford (preferably free for the lowest income families). Even after the pandemic is over and children are once again in the classroom, the digital divide will continue to haunt us in myriad other ways. Let’s fix it once and for all with a public option.

Please sign our petition.

Signed,

ArlFiber collective

ArlFiber began as a community effort to create a multistakeholder cooperative internet service provider for south Arlington that would lease redundant fibers from ConnectArlington to provide high-speed internet for small businesses and committed affordable housing projects along Columbia Pike and in Green Valley. We are now focused on creating a broadband authority for Arlington. Learn more at https://arlfiber.org/arlington-broadband-authority/

COVID-19 and Digital Equity in Arlington

Covid-19 and the digital divide

The Coronavirus pandemic has really laid bare the fundamental inequalities of U.S. society. This is particularly the case for internet access.

While the internet provides many with the opportunity to continue their daily lives with some semblance of normalcy amid the crisis, millions of Americans do not have reliable access to the web. Moreover, many workers do jobs that cannot be conducted online, like manufacturing and home health care. As a result of this stark digital divide, untold numbers are likely to suffer educational lapses, profound social isolation, or unemployment. As an IMF official recently stated, this will undoubtedly deepen inequality.

According to the Pew Research Center, 29% of adults with household incomes less than $30,000 a year don’t own a smartphone, while 44% don’t have home broadband and 46% lack a “traditional” computer. Pew also noted that 35% of lower-income households with school-age children don’t have a home-based broadband internet connection.

Obviously, this creates a potentially devastating situation for adults and children alike, who are de facto denied access to information and resources that may very well mean the difference between academic success and failure, solvency and financial ruin, and even life and death. People seeking medical care are being told to avoid hospitals and doctors’ offices in favor of video or phone calls with their doctors, but that’s hardly an option if you have no connection at all. Incidentally, given the increasing shift toward “telemedicine”, it is unsurprising that the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA) urged the US government in 2017 to recognize broadband access as a social determinant of health.

covid-19 pandemic and the great slowdown

If that wasn’t problematic enough, even those who have a connection are likely to be experiencing a serious degradation in the quality of their internet during this crisis. According to a recent report by M-Lab, an open source project which monitors global internet performance, internet service slowed across the country after the lockdowns.

Per M-Lab’s data, in late March, most people in 62% of counties across the US did not have the government’s minimum download speed for broadband internet. The report notes that between February and mid March, when the pandemic was still in its infancy here in the US, there was a 10% increase in how many counties saw download speeds fall below the government standard, representing about one in ten US counties. This data certainly puts into question the corporate ISPs claims that their networks are operating just fine.

It is important to note that the slowdown was occurring in rural and urban areas alike. In the Guardian’s analysis of the M-Lab data, it shone a spotlight on the Bronx, NYC’s poorest borough:

Bronx county in New York, the poorest of New York City’s five boroughs, has witnessed a sharp drop in broadband speeds. More than 1.41 million people live in the Bronx, a 42.4 sq mile (110 sq km) area, and their median broadband speed dropped 10Mbps – megabits per second. ISPs must also deliver a connection which has a minimum 3Mbps upload speed to meet the FCC standard for broadband. In a household where students are being asked to teleconference their teachers while their parents dip in and out of work meetings on Zoom and other platforms, the upload speed needed is far beyond the 3Mbps minimum.

locked out of the virtual classroom

Of course, this assumes that they even have internet at home to begin with, which, as we noted above low-income families with school-age children very often do not. And, this being the U.S., there are the usual racial disparities within the disparity. As Dana Floberg writes in the Guardian:

Poor families and people of color are particularly affected – only 56% of households making less than $20,000 have home broadband, and black and Hispanic households lag behind their white counterparts even when we control for income differences. Even among students who theoretically have access, not all access is equal. According to census research, 8% of households who have internet rely exclusively on mobile broadband. Once again, low-income people and communities of color are disproportionately more likely to be mobile-only broadband adopters. This also has particular impacts on students – only about half of school-age children who live in mobile-only households personally use the internet at home, perhaps because of the difficulty of sharing mobile devices.

This is not a new problem, though. Pew research back in 2018 revealed there was a serious “homework gap”, where nearly one in five students between kindergarten and 12th grade do not have computers or speedy Web connections. It is for this reason that many school districts discontinued teaching new materials for the rest of the school year once classes went online, as there were serious questions about equity. And to be clear, the pandemic has exacerbated this situation by adding to or compounding existing problems for low-income families like paying for food and shelter. As Michael Cataldo, Norfolk’s deputy superintendent, told a journalist from US News and World Report:

“We have some families that … are struggling just to get food on the table,” he said. “They’re not thinking about how to help their children with homework assignments.”

Virginia is no outlier

Here in Virginia, approximately 98% of homes and businesses in Virginia’s cities and suburbs have access to high-speed internet, meaning offering download speeds of 25 megabits per second or more [for now, we’ll bracket the discussion of whether that is really “high-speed”]. Nevertheless, nearly one-third of rural Virginia’s homes do not and about 11% have no access to any internet service, according to the 2019 Commonwealth Connect report that was commissioned by the Northam administration. Depending on the specific rural county, the number of homes without broadband can be over 50 percent. And shockingly, people in these poorly served areas are paying exorbitant costs for really slow internet. Here is a quote from the Daily Press:

“Our son is a junior and doing homework at home is very hard. Something that should take two to three hours to do turns into 10 to 12 hours because of the connection. Last week’s assignments he finished right at midnight on Friday. We pay over $80 monthly and it’s not even unlimited!” said Tammy Nelson, who lives in King William County.

arlington: Access without affordability

Access is one thing, however, affordability is another. Here in broadband-rich Arlington, 10 percent of households do not have internet at home – mostly because they cannot afford it. Arlington County took steps to mitigate this by using its municipal network to set up hotspots and distributed take-home devices through APS. When it became clear that that was still not enough, the county used $500,000 of its CARES Act money to strike a deal with Comcast to provide a slightly improved version of the latter’s Internet Essentials service to thousands of families for up to a year as well as MiFi devices. This should be adequate for the summer, but once the school year begins again, these fixes will likely prove to be insufficient. As Hannah Natanson at Washington Post reported back in May:

The school is also extending its WiFi to places such as school parking lots, permitting any member of the public to drive up and connect. But that method has drawbacks, too. For example, Adusumilli said, not all families own cars. The third temporary fix involves MiFis — small Internet-giving devices that Arlington staffers have delivered to 870 households since schools closed. But they have serious limitations, Adusumilli said. They can support just 90 minutes of high-quality video class per day. This has not been a major problem so far, Adusumilli said, because Arlington is not offering video instruction during the shutdown. But that may change come fall. And families are already using the MiFis for much more than school, he said. Anonymized aggregate data shows “families looking at news sites, county sites, hiring sites,” Adusumilli said. “It’s clear why: Some of the families we provided MiFis for, this is their only connection.”

Comcast extortionists

For those of us who were fighting for telecommunications reform in VA this past legislative session, the fact that we have to pay Comcast for their crappy Internet Essentials service instead of leveraging our existing municipal network is absolutely infuriating. First of all, it is Comcast and the other big telecoms that essentially wrote the laws that prevent Arlington from using ConnectArlington to…umm…connect Arlington! The cities that do not face such restrictions have been seeing a rapid climb in subscriptions and speed upgrades during the pandemic (and some rural areas now have faster more reliable internet than some cities thanks to work of rural electric and telephone coops).

Second of all, while Comcast has actually stood out among the corporate telecoms in terms of its efforts to bridge the digital divide during the current crisis, its gleeful receipt of mass public subsidies flies in the face of its own lobbying efforts to prevent municipal networks from subsidizing service for low-income residents. As the canny bloggers at Community Networks noted in a recent article about school districts’ deals with Comcast:

We are supportive of these sponsorship programs and Comcast’s willingness to work with the school districts. However, we want to remind readers that these same solutions would probably be called unfair cross-subsidies if municipal networks like Cedar Falls Utilities proposed them. “It is okay for Comcast to take public subsidies, but not local governments,” said Community Broadband Networks Director Christopher Mitchell. Tennessee and Louisiana even have laws that limit how low municipal broadband networks can price their service, preventing them from implementing creative solutions like this.

Thirdly, it is outrageous that we are subsidizing a 25/3 mb plan (will anyone from the County actually be monitoring this program to make sure Comcast lives up to those speeds?). Yes, yes – 25/3 is currently the FCC’s standard for “high-speed”, but ask any tech expert, and they will tell you how absurdly low that bar is. Here were the digital advocacy group Public Knowledge’s comments to the FCC about that standard:

Public Knowledge juxtaposed that against Google Fiber’s announcement that even 100 Mbps was being left behind and it would now only be offering gigabit speeds: “[E]ven if you don’t think you need a gig now, we think you will in the very near future,” the company said in announcing the sunset of 100 Mbps. It also cited NCTA-The Internet & Television Association data showing that one-gig service is now available to more than 80% of U.S. homes and trumpeting the trials of 10G service, citing 1 gig service in 80%-plus as proof of concept. The group said that given that, 25/3 is too low a mark and asked the FCC to up its aim. “We strongly encourage the Commission to increase the benchmark speed in order to portray a more modern, realistic broadband standard to at least 100 Mbps,” it said.

Time for a public option

In the aforementioned WaPo article about Arlington’s digital divide, Arlington County Board member Katie Cristol frets about the constraints that state telecom laws place on the use of our public fiber network. It is true that the laws do curtail the County’s ability to provide service to anything other than county-owned buildings, but there is in fact a workaround: form a broadband authority and convert part of ConnectArlington to an open access network that lays fiber directly to every building in the county (and lights it!).

This is by no means an obscure or dodgy solution. Under the Virginia Wireless Service Authority Act, counties, cities and towns in Virginia have the power to form a “wireless service authority” (usually called a “broadband authority” once formed) that can provide digital communication services. Several cities and counties have already formed an authority, and two of them – the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority and the Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority – have made amazing strides in connecting residents and businesses within their operating territories.

An Arlington Broadband Authority would do well to 1) partner with Falls Church and Alexandria, and 2) follow the Ammon, ID model of creating an open access network. Ammon has one of the fastest networks in the country and the most innovative. Their open access network infrastructure is fully publicly owned and operated, but they use a combination of virtualization and automation technology to allow multiple independent ISPs to compete to offer service (referred to as a “software defined network”). This would allow us to get around the rules that prevent municipal providers from competing with incumbents while greatly increasing speed and affordability. Ammon also used an innovative, debt-free financing approach that should be explored by any future broadband authority (obviously state laws differ, so it’s not a sure thing that we could emulate that particular method).

Visit our Arlington Broadband Authority page to learn more.

VADP adopts community broadband resolution

Members of ArlFiber who were delegates to the 2020 state convention of the Virginia Democratic Party submitted a resolution on ensuring high-speed affordable broadband for all by expanding community owned networks. You can read the resolution in full here, but the calls for action were as follows:

Therefore, be it Resolved that the 8th Congressional District Convention calls on the Virginia Delegation to United States Congress: US Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, along with US Representatives Don Beyer, Gerry Connolly, Elaine Luria, Donald MacEachin, Bobby Scott, Abigail Spanberger, and Jennifer Wexton to pursue the following[†] in Congress:

  • Enact legislation that clearly stipulates the right of municipalities, counties, and states to build their own broadband networks and preempts all local and state restrictions on the territorial and customer expansion of those community networks; and
  • Create a multi-billion dollar grant fund that provides funds exclusively to electricity and telephone cooperatives, non-profit organizations, tribes, cities, counties, and other state subdivisions to build the fiber infrastructure necessary to bring high-speed broadband to unserved areas, underserved areas, or areas with minimal competition, while conditioning those grants on 1) strong labor, wage and sourcing standards to ensure that federal funding goes toward creating good-paying union jobs and 2) on universal service, provisioning minimum speeds, privacy standards and affordability; and
  • Continue to seek passage of the “The Save the Internet Act” and apply pressure on the FCC to restore net neutrality and rescind rules that serve to erode internet user privacy;
  • Enact legislation that will require ISPs to report service and speeds down to the household level, as well as aggregate pricing data, and makes the data available to the public and stipulates regular audits to ensure accurate reporting; and
  • Enact legislation to prohibit the range of maneuvers giant private providers use to unfairly squeeze out competition, hold governments hostage, and drive up prices by returning control of utility poles and conduits to cities, prohibiting landlords from making side deals with private ISPs to limit choices in their properties, and banning companies from limiting access to wires inside buildings; and
  • Enact legislation that ensures that all new buildings are fiber-ready so that any network can deliver service there and institutes a “Dig Once” policies to require that conduit is laid anytime the ground is opened for a public infrastructure project; and

be it further Resolved that the 8th Congressional District Convention calls on Governor Ralph Northam of the Commonwealth of Virginia and the elected representatives of the General Assembly of Virginia to pursue the following:

  • Identify all laws within the Code of Virginia that currently pose an obstacle to any and all forms of community broadband and pass legislation to amend or eliminate them[‡]; and
  • Significantly increase state financial support and create a dedicated funding source for the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative program to provide infrastructure grants and technical assistance for localities in Virginia to build publicly owned and democratically controlled, co-operative, or open access broadband networks and to retrofit existing structures to accommodate Fiber-To-The-Home/Premises wireline connections; and
  • Enact legislation to prohibit the range of maneuvers giant private providers use to unfairly squeeze out competition, hold governments hostage, and drive up prices by returning control of utility poles and conduits to cities, prohibiting landlords from making side deals with private ISPs to limit choices in their properties, and banning companies from limiting access to wires inside buildings; and
  • Enact legislation that ensures that all new buildings are fiber-ready so that any network can deliver service there and institutes a “Dig Once” policies to require that conduit is laid anytime the ground is opened for a public infrastructure project.

The state resolutions committee adopted the resolution in whole. You can read it on pages 38-39 of the state party’s resolution package here.

HB 1052 – Fight Not Over

**We now know that this post is inaccurate. Localities in VA CAN do public broadband, but it has to be through a broadband authority**

This is a blog post discussing recent efforts by some members of our group to remove restrictions on community broadband in VA.

Virginia is currently not for lovers of public broadband. Over the years, the lobbyists for the big telecoms have done everything they can to ensure that local governments in VA cannot pursue a “public option” for the internet (or any telecommunication service) – regardless of whether those telecoms have made investments in the communities considering it.

The Saga of Optinet…

A case study in the corporate telecoms’ unyielding drive to block any attempt at public provision of telecommunication services is Bristol, VA, whose publicly owned utility BVU sought to become an internet service provider as early as 2000. After winning a battle in the federal courts and overcoming multiple costly lawsuits from the local telecoms who held a monopoly over phone (Sprint) and cable television (Charter) services, Bristol became the first public utility in the nation to build a city-wide Fiber-To-The-Home (FTTH) network offering telephone, cable television, and broadband access to the Internet. You can read all the details in this report by the Muninetworks team at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Sadly it was not to last. Despite the tremendous success of OptiNet, anti-public broadband regulations pushed by the corporate telecoms (in combination with a corruption scandal among BVU’s top management) led BVU to decide to sell Optinet off to a private company. The big telecoms’ reps now cite Optinet’s “failure” as reason for preventing future experiments in public broadband here in VA. Indeed, Del. Kathy Byron cited BVU as a reason for putting forth a bill to essentially ban public broadband in any form. Meanwhile, the corporate telecoms themselves continue to give us lots of reasons to seek alternatives to their de facto monopoly.

VA restrictions on public broadband…

According to a recent study commissioned by the Northam administration, there are around 660,000 homes and businesses in VA that lack connection to fixed terrestrial broadband at speeds of 25 Mbps/3 Mbps because it is simply unprofitable for many companies to build out their infrastructure to areas where population density is too low to recoup investments. In addition to that, there are potentially far more Virginians who do have access to fixed terrestrial broadband at speeds considerably higher than the FCC standard, but cannot afford a subscription. Here in broadband-rich Arlington, for instance, the county estimates that roughly 10 percent of households have no internet subscription, with 72 percent of those households earning considerably less than the area median income. One would think that if the problem is essentially market failure, the solution would be government intervention – we certainly have historical experience with this. Curiously enough, the Northam report does note the existence of public broadband entities in VA (pp. 12-14), but has nothing to say about their accomplishments and seems to dismiss them as a potential model to build on due to existing legislation that restricts them (treating this almost like a divinely ordered state of affairs that we mere mortals are powerless to change). While the report does have lots of good things to say about electric cooperatives providing internet service, the authors seem resigned to a strategy of subsidizing private, for-profit entities (like Dominion Energy) to expand the infrastructure and having private, for-profit telecoms provide the service.

While the Code of Virginia does not outright ban localities from creating public entities that provide retail internet service to residents and businesses in VA, the existing restrictions (one of which arbitrarily prohibits municipal networks from charging less than incumbent competitors for any equivalent service) make it simply impossible for municipal providers to be competitive or even get off the ground. One work-around that exists is for localities to form a “wireless service authority“, which allows localities to form a paragovernmental entity that can offer internet and telephone service. Several cities and counties have done this to great success (e.g. the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority and the Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority).

But this is a needlessly cumbersome (and still restrictive) option. Counties and cities should have the unlimited right to build, own, and operate their own networks to meet public need and be able to offer the same range of services. As the COVID-19 crisis is currently demonstrating, having internet access can be a life or death issue. If the corporate telecoms are leaving scores of people and whole areas behind, the community – through local government – should have the unencumbered right to intervene.

Goliath cries “foul”….

So what is the logic behind these restrictions? The corporate telecoms’ arguments for these restrictions on public broadband boil down to “unfair competition” and need for a “level playing field“; i.e. a government-owned telecom would have all kinds of built-in advantages and could potentially act as both regulator and competitor (for a list of these arguments and counterarguments to them, see this article). No matter how they try to spin it, though, the fact remains that it is the corporate telecoms who are monopolistic behemoths attempting to bend the machinery and resources of government to expand and entrench their own existing advantages.

There is a very simple reason for why untold numbers of people remain unconnected either because of the cost of a subscription or the absence of fixed broadband infrastructure in their area: because that’s what’s profitable for investor-owned telecoms that are driven by the philosophy of shareholder primacy. Community broadband (municipal, cooperative, open-access), on the other hand, operates on a not-for-profit basis that prioritizes the public good and subscribers – not returns for absentee shareholders with no stake in that community. Real existing community broadband entities have real solutions for the digital divide, respect net neutrality, and do not harvest their subscribers’ browsing data for sale to third parties (nor do they use your subscription money to lobby Congress for the ability to do such things). Despite a few actual failures of public broadband attempts, the success stories are numerous, and, on average, they perform better than the corporate telecoms, while providing service for less. Thus these latter day community broadband Davids appear to be wholly capable of defeating the Goliaths of the telecom industry when there really is something resembling a fair playing field, which is why the latter is seeking to tie the former’s hands behind their backs.

The Arlington Mills fiasco…

The consequences that state-level restrictions have had here in Arlington were on full display last year when the county sought to leverage its dark fiber network (Connect Arlington) to provide free building-wide WiFi to an affordable housing project on Columbia Pike through a public-private partnership (PPP). While the county has the authority to connect and provide service to county-owned buildings through its dark fiber network, state law prohibits it from connecting to or servicing privately owned ones. Therefore, if the county wants to use the Connect Arlington network to bring internet service to an affordable housing project, it must find a third party who will build out the “last mile” and then lease strands from the dark fiber network to provide service to that site (as an aside, ArlFiber’s goal is to participate in a PPP with the county to provide an affordable high-speed connection to low-income residents and small businesses in south Arlington).

Last year, the county attempted such a project at Arlington Mills Residences (owned and serviced by APAH), and it didn’t go so well. Doubtless, some of the difficulties were self-inflicted. The terms of the county’s standard agreement for leasing the fiber are far too onerous and create an uncertain operating environment for any private entity that might opt to use them (a problem that was identified long ago by the county’s own broadband advisory committee). This led the small ISP selected for the project to walk away, which left the county and APAH scrambling for a solution. Ultimately, the Department of Information Technology opted to act as a bridge of sorts between APAH and a bulk internet provider – an arrangement that comes perilously close to crashing on the shoals of VA’s anti-public broadband restrictions. The implementation of this workaround has reportedly been far from smooth. There is no institutional steward for the APAH network, so troubleshooting connection problems is difficult to impossible, and there is but a single staff member in charge of making everything work. Wouldn’t it be easier if Connect Arlington could act directly as the ISP?

HB 1052…

Well some of us thought it would be! After the Democrats took back the VA General Assembly last fall, some members of the ArlFiber collective decided to send around a briefing paper to members of the Arlington Delegation to Richmond to inform them of these restrictions and ask them to put in a bill to remove them in the 2020 session. While the reps who replied were supportive, only Mark Levine answered the call to put forth a bill: HB 1052.

To be sure, the bill is ambitious. It would remove all barriers to municipal broadband and would even allow such public telecoms to provide phone and cable television services as well (while also removing restrictions on cross-subsidies and the need to hold a referendum). Naturally, it was anathema to the corporate telecoms, and their ferocious reaction to a different, more modest bill served as a cautionary tale for Del. Levine and his aides.

HB 1242 and the lobbyist onslaught…

Coinciding with Del. Levine’s telecom reform bill in the 2020 session was a narrower one from Del. Steve Heretick: HB 1242, which, according to its own summary, would allow government entities to “offer telecommunications, Internet access, broadband, information, and data transmission services.” We first became aware of this bill when one of our members was asked about it during an interview with a reporter from Communications Daily. Intrigued by this development, that same member popped into Del. Heretick’s Richmond office during a citizen lobbying mission for another group, whereupon she was able to make some inquiries about the origins and intention of the bill. What we learned was that the city of Portsmouth was looking for more authority to expand its existing public network for a specific project and had lobbied its reps in the House and the Senate to put forth a bill that would grant it that authority. Del. Heretick’s aide informed her that they had arranged a meeting between the constituents asking for the bill and representatives from the telecommunications industry. Amazingly, we were invited to attend.

On the day of the meeting, we arrived to the appointed place on time, but encountered a long and slow-moving line to enter the building (occasioned by the armed protest by gun rights supporters the day before). We were about 15-20 minutes late by the time we made it into room and were initially confused as to who was who among the numerous individuals seated at the table. Rather quickly, however, we discerned that there were about three principals from Portsmouth (a city council member, an attorney for the city, and their chief information officer) and about a dozen lobbyists from just about every corporate telecom that you can think of. Del. Heretick was sitting in the middle acting as moderator, with Levine’s chief of staff sitting across from him and observing.

It was a brutal sight to behold. The Portsmouth people plead their case, explaining that they sought a change in the law so that the city’s existing municipal network could provide free building-wide WiFi for a few public housing projects that currently have no service. The murder of lobbyists assembled at the other side of the table took turns excoriating the idea as fiscally dangerous and demanded to know why Portsmouth had not tried to work with an incumbent telecom to provide the services. The Portsmouth Chief Information Officer, Daniel Jones, explained patiently (and with a level of aplomb that I could not have mustered in response to all of this…) that they had reached out to the main local (monopolist) telecom Cox to try to work out a deal, but the latter rebuffed them. Jones repeatedly emphasized that the city had no intention of competing with the incumbents, but simply wanted to provide connection in places that were uneconomical for the telecoms. Once a sort of silent impasse took hold, the head of the corporate telecom association for Virginia (Ray LaMura) launched into a dramatic monologue about the dangers that public broadband poses to tax payers, citing the example of BVU’s Optinet, while claiming that even the seemingly successful munis like Chattanooga’s EPB are rickety ships kept afloat thanks to millions of federal tax payer dollars (unlike the billions that the corporate telecoms have received to do pretty much nothing at all). Once LaMura wrapped up his lengthy philippic, Del. Heretick announced he had places to be and essentially told the two parties to talk among themselves and come up with a solution. After he exited, LaMura informed the Portsmouth team that the lobbyists would huddle and try to find an amicable solution to the problem and get back to them later. Once the lobbyists departed, we approached the Portsmouth reps to exchange notes and contact information. A few days after that meeting, Del. Heretick’s aides told us the bill was dead. It’s unclear whether a “solution” was actually found.

The struggle continues…

In light of that onslaught (and probably because it was hardly his main priority during this session), Del. Levine decided to continue HB 1052 to the 2021 session and request a formal study of the issue. It seems the only way forward is to try to build a statewide coalition of influential stakeholders who are tired of the broadband status quo in Virginia so that we can finally break the telecoms’ stranglehold over the General Assembly. The fact that we were able to even get a delegate to put forward a bill this ambitious gives us hope for the future.

If you’d like to be part of that coalition, email us.

5G, the Digital Divide, and a Cooperative Response

In many of our conversations with people in the community about the ArlFiber project, we are often asked why we are focusing on fiber when everyone else is talking about the coming 5G wireless resolution.

As we point out in our FAQ, fiber is the only “future proof” telecommunications technology out there, insofar as one need only change out the equipment used to light it. In that regard, fiber to the home will remain the gold standard for the foreseeable future. Moreover, one version of 5G (the one using millimeter wave spectrum) will need a lot of fiber just to operate effectively, so that particular 5G future would be paved in lots and lots of fiber.

What is not really addressed in all the hype over 5G, though, is the nagging issue of access: where will it be deployed, for whom, and for how much (and with what kind of data caps)? We know that the telecoms’ prevailing practice in these matters is to cherry pick the best areas with the highest density and throw everyone on the margins to the wolves. In that regard, new technology is nice, but without the right policies and institutions, the benefits of those technologies will be unevenly experienced and will do nothing to change the status quo – points well made by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in the following fact sheet:

While it may not be as sexy as 5G, fiber is being used by communities all over the country to finally bridge the digital divide between and within communities and provide blazingly fast internet for very affordable prices to residents and businesses that had long been left out in the cold by the corporate telecom monopolies.

One great example of this is RS Fiber, which is a broadband cooperative that was set up in rural Minnesota to bring high-speed internet to farms and rural residents with seemingly impossibly distances between customers.

NBC profiled RS Fiber last year in a great segment about 5G and the persistent problems of the digital divide:

Our hope with ArlFiber is to create a (sub)urban cooperative that accomplishes the same. With their monopoly pricing power, Verizon and Comcast have left too many of our neighbors and local businesses behind or with no other option than slow, overpriced service. We can end that. Join us!