Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
Content tagged with "alexandria"
New Municipal Broadband Networks Skyrocket in Post-Pandemic America As Alternative To Private Monopoly Model
As the new year begins, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) announced today its latest tally of municipal broadband networks which shows a dramatic surge in the number of communities building publicly-owned, locally controlled high-speed Internet infrastructure over the last three years.
Since January 1, 2021, at least 47 new municipal networks have come online with dozens of other projects still in the planning or pre-construction phase, which includes the possibility of building 40 new municipal networks in California alone.
While it’s been somewhat of a rarity in larger metropolitan areas, the city of Alexandria, Virginia (pop. 158,000) is hoping to bring residents fast, reliable Internet access by building out an institutional network (I-Net) in the state’s seventh largest city.
Construction of the I-Net, which is expected to be completed by February 2025, will connect the city’s schools, public safety buildings and other facilities, and lay the foundation for a city-wide fiber-to-the-home network.
Instead of waiting for Comcast to give residents the service they need, in August the city broke ground on the project that was long in the works. The main aim is to connect government facilities with the hope that the city will lease out the conduit to a private Internet Service Provider (ISP) as a way to incent more broadband competition.
According to the city’s broadband webpage: the “Municipal Fiber project will create potential partnership opportunities to expand consumer choice and increase available speeds for broadband services.” If the city moves forward with a public-private partnership, it could make the municipal network one of the largest in the country.
City officials have created a Request for Proposals (RFP) process, in which they will be looking for ISPs that have a track record of connecting other communities in the state. The winning bidder would then be given a contract to build a fiber network that best serves the public interest, working closely with the city in deploying network infrastructure.
Broadband In the Works
Virginia is one of the 17 states that puts restrictions on municipal networks, mandating that “municipal networks impute private sector costs, pay additional taxes, set excessively high prices, and/or refrain from subsidizing affordable service, in the name of protecting private ‘competition.’” But that hasn’t stopped city officials from finding solutions to the lack of high-speed connectivity in the community.
In a recent article, “Tell The Story We Know: Broadband Competition is Too Limited,” Jonathan Sallet laid out the case for robust broadband competition as a necessary step in expanding high-quality connectivity nationwide. “Academic research tells us that more broadband competition matters: pushing rivals to up their game, saving money for consumers, increasing the quality of service,” explained Sallet, a current Benton Institute Senior Fellow and former General Counsel at the Federal Communications Commission.
The article, co-published by the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society and the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, identified greater broadband competition as one of the four “building blocks” needed to reach the goal of connecting all Americans to modern Internet access by 2030. Sallet has expanded on this goal in the report, Broadband for America’s Future: A Vision for the 2020s, which we covered last year. In addition to creating more Internet choice, the report cited the need for continued efforts to deploy broadband infrastructure, increase affordability and adoption, and connect community anchor institutions.
In early November, the city of Alexandria, Virginia, began seeking bidders to construct an institutional network to connect city facilities. In addition to developing infrastructure to meet the city administrative needs, Alexandria wants to bring local schools, public safety, and its Smart City Mobility transportation efforts together on a publicly owned fiber optic system.
In addition to improving connectivity among City facilities and sites, the Municipal Fiber project will create potential partnership opportunities to expand consumer choice and increase available speeds for broadband services available in Alexandria. In response to consistent feedback regarding the lack of options for cable television and broadband Internet services, the City has actively pursued other potential providers. With the construction of the new fiber optic network, the City is planning to seek new partners who could lease excess conduit space to provide broadband service to residents and businesses. This would allow all providers to compete fairly and would encourage providers to offer consumer services.
The city of Alexandria currently leases an I-Net from Comcast and has decided to make the long-term investment to replace that infrastructure. By eliminating the lease arrangement, Alexandria will have more control over the use of the fiber optic network, giving them the ability to expand it in the future to businesses and households or work with private sector partners if the community chooses. The city will also be able to better plan for financial needs if they don't have to contend with unpredictable rate hikes from Comcast.
Alexandria has been looking at developing a municipal network for several years now, but budgeting has been a roadblock. By eliminating an expensive lease from Comcast, they will be able to redirecting those funds toward better local connectivity through a municipal network project.
In order to reduce the cost of the deployment wherever possible:
On February 13th, the Virginia Senate Labor and Commerce Committee held a hearing on HB 2108, previously called the "Virginia Broadband Deployment Act" and now named the "Virginia Wireless Services Authority Act." Delegate Kathy Byron offered an amendment to the bill, it was accepted, and the bill passed. It is now headed for the full Senate where it may or may not be put on the calendar for a vote.
FOIA Language Removed
The bill came to the Senate after a revised version of the original bill passed in the House 72 - 24. The committee amendment removed a FOIA Exemption, which was the last piece of language remaining that local groups strongly opposed. In a press release, President and CEO of Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority said:
“With the removal the FOIA Exemption clause this afternoon, HB 2108 no longer poses a threat to local and municipal broadband authorities. Instead it merely reasserts the very same laws and procedures in the Code of Virginia to which we all already operate and gladly adhere and abide,”
Moving Ahead With Caution
With the exception of the Committee Chair, Sen. Frank Wagner, the vote to pass as amended was unanimous; there was one abstention. Wagner, who is running for Governor, announced his opposition to the original bill at a press conference in January. While advocates of publicly owned Internet infrastructure remain cautiously optimistic, it’s important to remember that the process is not over. The bill could still be amended in a manner that impedes local investment in better connectivity.
Working Despite State Obstruction
Even though State Legislators introduce bills that discourage better rural connectivity, local Virginia communities are doing their best to serve themselves. They realize that waiting is too risky and that the longer they have horrible connectivity, the farther behind they fall.
Alexandria, Virginia's City Council is talking about broadband. In a recent DelRay Patch article, Drew Hansen reported that Councilman Justin Wilson recently addressed the Del Ray Citizen's Association to advocate for a plan to improve local connectivity. From the article:
“We’re still dealing with severe budget issues and dropping $300 million on a huge broadband system is not a reality,” he said. “But the first thing we need is a plan.”
According to the article, Alexandria has traveled down this path before with attempts to work with private providers:
In the late 2000s, the city saw a deal with EarthLink to bring free municipal Wi-Fi and competitive service to consumers fall through when the CEO suddenly passed away. Then Verizon made a decision not to build any new FiOS networks as Alexandria was looking for a provider, leaving the city in the lurch.
As is often the case, Verizon is not convinced Alexandria is worth the investment:
“I reached out to Verizon a few months ago and they didn’t even want to meet,” Wilson said. “I think that shows where we are. The city is going to have to be more aggressive. I think we’ve reached the end of big infrastructure build and we’re seeing some new models.”
Wilson raised the possibility of conduit installation in Alexandria in preparation for fiber installation. The community will soon be updating sewers in parts of town.
“We have a responsibility to our residents to create competition,” Wilson said. “If the private sector doesn’t do it, there are some things we can do.”