Arlington, Virginia, Delivers Digital Inclusion

People living at the Arlington Mill Residences in Arlington, Virginia, are on track to obtain no-cost high-quality connectivity this fall, likely through the ConnectArlington network. The initiative is an example of how one local community plans to use its publicly owned Internet infrastructure to reduce the digital divide on its home turf.

The Homework Gap

Within Arlington Mill’s 122 affordable units, live 159 children; approximately half of the residences do not subscribe to an Internet access service. Because homework is increasingly dependent on a child’s ability to work online, kids at Arlington Mills must contend with the problem of finding access to computers and the Internet. For households that do subscribe, no-cost Internet access would free up monthly resources from $50 - $75 per month.

The Department of Technology Services (DTS) and Department of Community Planning, Housing, and Development (CPHD) are collaborating to support the Arlington Digital Inclusion initiative. The initiative will start in Arlington Mills by providing free Wi-Fi to each unit and will eventually move to other properties owned by the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing (APAH). As the program moves forward, the city plans to seek out private donations and other grants to reduce the digital divide. The program will also be exploring ways to help residents obtain reduced cost or free devices or computers to take advantage of the high-quality connectivity. APAH has already applied for a 2019 Community Development Fund grant to cover the cost of training and notebook computers for residents.

APAH expects to choose an ISP that will use ConnectArlington, the county's dark fiber network infrastructure.

The network began offering dark fiber services to business customers in 2015, but the infrastructure has been in place since 2012. Arlington took advantage of several infrastructure projects, including traffic control upgrades and other public safety improvements, to expand its fiber footprint. In 2014, Christopher spoke with Jack Belcher, who shared ConnectArlington's backstory, for episode 97 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

County Funding

A grant supported by county Tax Increment Funding (TIF) will pay to get the project rolling. In December, the Arlington County Board unanimously voted to approve the $94,500 grant to APAH, which will cover the cost of hardware and software, maintenance, and approximately $25,000 toward Internet service, and dark fiber fees to ConnectArlington, if the ISP APAH chooses delivers services via the publicly owned infrastructure. As APAH looks for an ISP, they will seek out a provider that is willing to make in-kind contributions to cover any fees beyond the amount prescribed by the grant.

Funding for this project comes from the Columbia Pike TIF, which was established “to help finance affordable housing initiatives and other public services and improvements as determined by the County Board in support of the Columbia Pike Neighborhoods Area Plan.” The fund supports infrastructure improvements for affordable housing; the Arlington Mill Residences are within the neighborhood.

Read more about the initiative in the staff report.

Other communities have used TIF to fund Internet infrastructure build-outs, including Eugene, Oregon, and Valparaiso, Indiana. TIF allows a community to borrow against future increases in property tax revenue in an area where a project will be developed.

Not Only Students

While it’s true that many of the residents are Arlington Mill attend school, other people living in the apartments also need Internet access. There are elderly folks and others who need to use the Internet to access health information, apply for jobs, and research essential services. Right now, many of them must find access away from home to complete those tasks.

“APAH is thrilled by the County’s support for bridging the digital divide for our residents at Arlington Mill,” said APAH President and CEO Nina Janopaul. “Half of our residents have no reliable access to the Internet. Students use Internet portals to complete their homework. Parents need the Internet to follow their children’s progress in school. Workers need the Internet to apply for jobs. This program removes a major barrier for our residents to fully participate in our community.”

Image of Arlington County by Arlington County [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.