County Now Hopes to Use Troubled Fiber Optic Network for New ‘Digital Equity Initiative’

by Alex Koma February 27, 2019 at 3:30 pm 0

Arlington officials now hope to use some of the county’s fiber optic network to jumpstart a “digital equity initiative,” though questions still linger about the future of the troubled “ConnectArlington” program.

County Manager Mark Schwartz envisions the county setting aside $250,000 for a new grant program, allowing nonprofits and healthcare providers apply for cash to build connections to the county’s “dark fiber” network. Everyone from senior citizens to patients would then be able use that high-speed internet connection to access county services remotely, taking advantage of the county’s own broadband network.

Schwartz is proposing the new initiative as part of his first crack at drafting a new budget for fiscal year 2020, but county officials have been discussing ConnectArlington’s future for some time now.

The county initially built out its broadband network to link its own facilities together. Then, four years ago, the County Board shelled out $4.1 million to build another 10 miles of the network, with plans to allow local businesses and internet service providers lease the fiber and get cheaper access to blazing-fast internet service.

However, the network has since gone almost entirely unused, and a committee of experts convened by the county is urging officials to change their strategies for managing the network, which they believe have scared off any businesses from using it.

Schwartz is still drafting up recommendations on how to meet those goals, and get some return on the county’s investment in the project. But, in the meantime, county officials see this “digital equity” investment as a small way to start using some of its capacity right away.

“ConnectArlington is obviously a valuable asset to the community, and we want to continue to work on maximizing that value,” Deputy County Manager Jim Schwartz, who oversees Arlington’s technology efforts, told ARLnow. “This is using it, but it’s not the maximal use we would hope for.”

Under the county manager’s proposal, the grant money could enable new telemedicine services at a local doctor’s office or hospital, or perhaps connect people in need with county services remotely.

Though the county has yet to strike an agreement with a specific nonprofit, Schwartz used Culpepper Garden, a senior living facility operated by the Arlington Retirement Housing Corporation, as an example of a building that could hook up to ConnectArlington.

Schwartz said that the nonprofit could use the grant money to construct a “lateral,” hooking up to the fiber network — one of the key problems experts identified with ConnectArlington was its lack of such laterals, with one critic comparing the network to “an interstate with no on-ramps or off-ramps.”

Culpepper Garden could then use that network connection to set up a secure video-conferencing service with county staff, perhaps at Arlington’s Department of Human Services, Schwartz said.

“It might just be a resident who needs to access human services, not even necessarily health-related,” Schwartz said. “But instead of going over there to Sequoia Plaza, there might be a place within Culpepper Gardens where they could go and converse with staff.”

Schwartz notes that the county would need to set up a software platform to enable that connection, which it hasn’t done yet, but officials are intrigued by the possibility, nonetheless.

“Making the fiber connection is the easiest part of this,” Schwartz said. “We’re thinking about, what sort of platform could enable access to the services we’re talking about?

The manager’s proposal also calls for setting aside $50,000 in the Affordable Housing Investment Fund for similar projects at affordable housing developments. The county previously worked with the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing to use the network to provide free Wi-Fi service at the group’s Arlington Mill apartment complex, though Schwartz says the county would specifically use ConnectArlington to provide access to services, not for internet access generally.

Schwartz added that the county could also use ConnectArlington to better link county-owned facilities. For instance, the county could upgrade the connection between the Department of Human Services and its Residential Program Center (an emergency shelter and jail diversion facility) to set up secure video conferencing.

The group that evaluated ConnectArlington for the county, the Broadband Advisory Committee, is broadly “supportive” of these uses for the network, Schwartz said. But he added that the manager is still thinking through the best ways to meet the bulk of the group’s recommendations.

The Board will consider its “digital equity” proposal as part of its budget deliberations, which are set to last for the next few weeks and conclude in early April.

Flickr photo via Arlington Dept. Environmental Services

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