Create a Broadband Authority for Arlington

Libby Garvey; Christian Dorsey; Katie Cristol; Matt de Ferranti; Takis Karantonis

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that the digital divide in the United States is a national emergency. The mass transition to online work and communication has left countless families and individuals behind. At the start of the pandemic, the Washington Post reported on the struggles of low-income families here in Arlington who are reeling from the lack of access to the internet at home. It is having an especially serious impact on school children from poor families - a problem that preceded and will continue after the pandemic. This does not end at low-income families, though. Arlington County's own Broadband Advisory Commission reported that 60% of commercial buildings have only one provider, and most residents and small businesses have a choice between only two providers (and sometimes not even that). The digital divide and poor service for high cost is the inevitable result of relying on highly monopolized markets to provide internet service. The big for-profit corporate telecommunications corporations have no need to compete or ensure that everyone has access to quality internet service that they can afford. Moreover, these large corporations work to pass laws that restrict local governments from pursuing a public option, while also lobbying Congress to remove privacy protections and eliminate net neutrality. While it is commonly thought that we have no choice but to put up with poor service for high cost (or no service at all), we actually have a path open to us here in Arlington to create a public option. Under the Virginia Wireless Service Authority Act, Arlington County can form a "broadband authority" that would be legally able to provide fiber-to-the-premises connections to all homes and businesses in the County that want it. To learn more see our FAQ:
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To: Libby Garvey; Christian Dorsey; Katie Cristol; Matt de Ferranti; Takis Karantonis
From: [Your Name]

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the many perils and injustices created by the digital divide in the United States. This divide is largely attributable to our reliance on highly monopolized telecommunications markets to provide internet access, whereby the decisions on service are based solely on the consideration of super 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 providers operating here in Arlington.

In the early 2010s, Arlington County made the decision to break from its longstanding relationship with Comcast due to dissatisfaction over the costs and quality of their service. It then constructed its own network to provide internet access to all publicly owned buildings. By all accounts, the ConnectArlington network provides far better service than Comcast ever did and has already paid for itself. Despite that, when the pandemic hit, Arlington County was forced to pay $500,000 to Comcast to provide free internet service to low-income families because Virginia telecommunication laws bar the County from using its own network to do this itself. And who is responsible for those laws? Comcast (and the other big telecoms), of course.

Despite certain misconceptions about legal constraints on municipal broadband in Virginia, Arlington does have a way around this problem, which is to form a broadband authority under The Virginia Wireless Service Authority Act (VWSAA) and create a public option for all businesses and residences in the county. Multiple cities and counties in Virginia have already taken this route, the most successful examples being the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority and the Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority (ESVBA). An Arlington broadband authority could act as the internet service provider (ISP) as is done by ESVBA here in VA and in cities outside of VA like Chattanooga (TN), Longmont (CO), and Hillsboro (OR) - all of which are offering high-speed service at a fixed price that is significantly cheaper than the going rates of Comcast and Verizon.

This is an opportune time to pursue community broadband. The American Rescue Plan Act and the recently passed Congressional infrastructure investment plan are set to provide a considerable amount of money to localities for broadband infrastructure and to enable the creation of public networks to provide service. We need to get out ahead of this and have "shovel-ready" projects on hand.

Therefore, we the undersigned urge you to act swiftly to:

1) form a broadband authority for Arlington County under the powers granted to counties, cities and towns in Virginia by The Virginia Wireless Service Authority Act;
2) conduct a formal feasibility study to assess the best options for moving ahead with a community-owned, county-wide, fiber-to-the-home broadband network.