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. The Washington Post recently 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 will persist as the schools go virtual in the fall. This does not end at low-income families, though. Arlington County's own Broadband Advisory Commission reported that 60% of commercial buildings had only one provider, and most residents have choice only between Verizon and Comcast. 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 shareholder-owned corporate telecommunications corporation have not 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. 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 markets to provide internet access 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 telecommunications corporations 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 telecommunications 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 an open access network that connects to all buildings 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) itself like ESVBA, or it could use software defined networks to have private ISPs compete to provide low-cost, high-speed service, a model that was pioneered in Ammon, ID and has been highly successful.

Therefore, we the undersigned urge you to act swiftly to 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. Further, we urge that this broadband authority be used to create an open access network that provides fiber-to-the-premises connections for residences and businesses throughout Arlington incorporating the best practices of the existing broadband authorities here in VA and pioneering models like the municipal network in Ammon in Idaho and UTOPIA in Utah.