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Four years ago, Arlington officials spent $4.1 million to build a 10-mile fiber optic network aimed at allowing local businesses to get cheaper access to higher-speed internet — since then, the fiber has just sat in the ground, almost totally unused.

At the time, county leaders championed the construction of the “dark fiber” network as a transformative step for Arlington. Though the county is barred by state law from offering internet service itself, officials envisioned smaller internet service providers working with local tech firms to “light” the fiber, providing county businesses with a powerful new option to access the internet at blazing-fast speeds.

But an ARLnow investigation shows that Arlington officials made a series of decisions in designing the program that scared off any businesses interested in leasing the fiber.

A committee of broadband experts convened by the county laid out many of these problems with the network, dubbed “ConnectArlington,” in a thorough report recommending an extensive overhaul of the program’s design. At least one member compared ConnectArlington to the infamous — but never built — “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska.

County officials, including County Manager Mark Schwartz, have now been aware of the group’s conclusions for close to eight months and they say they’re already hard at work to heed some of the committee’s recommendations. The report has even since been forwarded along to the County Board, even though Schwartz had originally hoped to wait to deliver his own recommendations for the program alongside the committee’s conclusions.

Now, it remains an open question how the county will work to address the problems with ConnectArlington, which costs hundreds of thousands of dollars per year for the county to maintain.

“They have this huge amount of fiber in the ground, and not a single strand of it has been leased,” said Chris Rozycki, a member of the Broadband Advisory Committee that studied ConnectArlington. “It’s like they’ve built an interstate, with no on-ramps or off-ramps.”

Fiber frustrations

The Board decided to build the 10-mile network in February 2015, reasoning that it would be a logical extension of the county’s existing fiber network, which connects county facilities, schools, radio towers and traffic signals.

Then-County Board member Jay Fisette touted it to ARLnow at the time as a “competitive advantage over other jurisdictions,” positioning it as a key tool for economic development in the county. It was also designed as a way to provide more competition for large ISPs like Verizon and Comcast — the county’s own research shows that companies at roughly 60 percent of all county office buildings only have one ISP able to offer them fiber-based service.

But the network’s design and the county’s conditions for leasing out the fiber were flawed from the very beginning, according to the broadband committee’s report and interviews with four of the group’s six members.

A chief concern is how the county chose to build out the fiber. Officials designed it as “middle mile” service, meaning it runs along major roadways (along the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor and Columbia Pike, for example) but didn’t initially connect to the buildings along the corridors.

“To be useful, the network must be complete,” the report argues, according to a copy obtained by ARLnow. The report has not been publicly released by the county.

“‘Build it and they will come’ does not always work,” the committee wrote. “Part of the network was built, but not enough to bring the ‘players’ to the game.”

(Read the full report written by the county’s Broadband Advisory Committee.)

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Morning Notes

ACPD Urges Caution on Roads As Days Get Shorter — “The days are getting shorter and there’s increased pedestrian and bicyclist traffic after dark,” the Arlington County Police Department said in a public service tweet last night. “Slow down, remain alert and proceed with care and caution.” [Twitter, Twitter]

History: Fort Myer During World War I — A Library of Congress collection includes 100-year-old photographs showing what life was like on Fort Myer during World War I. The photos show a visit from President Woodrow Wilson and the famous “Three Sisters” radio towers. [Pentagram]

Redskins Visit Fort Myer, Play Video Games — Former Washington Redskins players Santana Moss and Fred Smoot visited Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall and engaged in a Madden 18 video game tournament with some of the men and women in uniform. [WUSA 9]

Notable Tree Nomination Deadline Approaching — November 15 is the application deadline for submitting a tree for consideration as a 2018 Arlington County “notable tree.” [Arlington County]

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Morning Notes

Nauck Town Square Project Progressing  — “There seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel for the Nauck Town Square project, which aims to turn a barren (though iconic) strip of land into a true community gathering place… If all goes as planned, a construction contract will be inked in 2018, with completion a year later.” [InsideNova]

History: Arlington’s Three Sisters — Arlington County was home to the second-tallest human-made structure in the world after the Eiffel Tower: one of the “Three Sisters” U.S. Navy radio towers that once stood along Columbia Pike. [Arlington Magazine]

Mall Raising Money for Breast Cancer Research — This month the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City will be raising money for breast cancer research by offering discount cards to shoppers who make a $5 donation to the Susan G. Komen organization. The mall will also be holding meet and greets with the Susan G. Komen D.C. chapter and on Oct. 21 will be offering free pink cookies and pink lemonade. [Simon]

Arlington Issues New Bonds — Arlington County successfully sold $58 million in new bonds this week at an average 3.24 percent interest rate. “This sale allows the County to finance two important land acquisitions, while also saving the County $3.8 million of future debt service by refinancing existing bonds at lower rates,” County Manager Mark Schwartz said in a press release. [Arlington County]

Photo courtesy James Mahony

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arlington-historical-markers-series-screenshotThere are more than 80 historical markers scattered throughout Arlington County’s 26 square miles, but if you’re like many locals, you probably haven’t visited all of them.

A recently launched video series from Arlington Public Schools will let you learn about some of those sites without leaving your computer.

The program, hosted in part by APS Superintendent Dr. Pat Murphy, highlights 11 of the county’s most significant historic sites.

Since the series debuted earlier this summer, it’s already uncovered some interesting tidbits about the area, such as:

And there’s more history on the way. Next up, the series will tackle historical sites such as the Necostin Indian Site at the Roosevelt Island Parking Lot, Stratford Junior High School (which currently houses the H-B Woodlawn secondary program) and the Reevesland farmhouse.

Screenshot via Arlington Historical Markers video

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Arlington County will be holding a ribbon-cutting ceremony this afternoon for the new park at Penrose Square.

The ceremony for the 17,000 square feet park, located at 2503 Columbia Pike, will be kick off at 4:00 today. The park features a tree-covered upper terrace with movable tables and chairs, an inner plaza with a water feature, small gardens, a sustainable storm water runoff bio-filtration and re-circulation system, and “Echo,” a large two-piece sculpture by Richard Deutsch (more information, below).

The park was designed by the prominent local design firm Oculus. A second phase of the project will include “a transit Super Stop in front of the square along Columbia Pike to support the current Pike Ride buses as well as future generations of transit.”

“With the completion of this first phase of the Penrose Square project, we are really beginning to feel and see the transformation of Columbia Pike,” Arlington County Board Chair Mary Hynes said in a statement. “A visionary group of residents came together to create this vibrant, public square that will serve as a welcoming place, where neighbors can come together to socialize, dine, relax and have fun.”

In a press release, county officials described in inspiration for the “Echo” sculpture.

As a member of Penrose Square’s landscape design team, Richard Deutsch created the interactive sculpture inspired by the Three Sisters Radio Towers, formerly located near Columbia Pike and Courthouse Road.

Built in 1913 by the Navy as cutting-edge technology, the towers broadcast the first trans-Atlantic radio signal in 1915, connecting Arlington with the Eiffel Tower. They also introduced regular broadcasts of time signals — important navigational aids for ships at sea. When National Airport opened in 1941 the towers posed an aviation hazard and were taken down.

Echo provides a modern interpretation of Arlington’s significant contribution to the history of communication. The concave elliptical parabolas carved into each monolith reflect and project sound, allowing words spoken into one stone to be heard by listeners at the other. California-based artist Deutsch designs sculpture and environments using stone, water, bronze, and stainless steel. Like Echo, much of his work is marked by an understanding of space and environment and an attention to social context and history.

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(Updated at 12:40 p.m.) The small grassy field in front of the new Penrose Square apartments on Columbia Pike will likely be transformed into a considerably less grassy, $2 million public plaza over the next year.

Over the weekend, the Arlington County Board will vote on whether to approve a construction contract and a public art contract for a “Penrose Square Public Plaza” at 2503 Columbia Pike. The 17,360 square foot plaza will be a central focus of the revitalized Columbia Pike “town center,” and will serve “as a meeting and gathering spot in the Corridor’s new urban fabric.”

The construction contract, worth some $1.6 million, will create “a tree-covered terrace with movable tables and chairs; an inner plaza with a water feature… an inscription of historical significance of the site; and a grass mound area shaded with trees for informal seating.” The water feature will be made sustainable “by collecting, treating and then reusing water from the fountain again to minimize daily water consumption.”

Yearly operating costs for the plaza are estimated at just above $100,000 per year, including $68,290 for grounds maintenance, $20,000 for fountain maintenance and $13,000 for utilities like water and electricity.

The plaza will also feature a public art installation. Dubbed “Echo,” the installation by artist Richard Deutsch will consist of two large granite slabs, each with a parabola carved out of one side. The slabs will be arranged so that someone at the end of one parabola will be able to clearly hear someone speaking at the other parabola, 30 feet away.

“The artwork is inspired by the significant role that Arlington’s Three Sisters Radio Towers, formerly located on the nearby Navy Annex property, played in the development of the nation’s trans-Atlantic communication capabilities,” the County Board report says. The sole-source contract to create the installation is worth $425,000.

Echo is expected to be installed in the spring of 2012. Construction on the plaza is expected to wrap up in the fall of 2012. A second construction phase — which will eventually extend the plaza into what is now the adjacent CVS parking lot — is also in the works.

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You may not realize it, but Arlington was once home to the biggest, baddest radio towers in the world.

The U.S. Navy Radio Station was built in 1910 on what is now Columbia Pike, overlooking the nation’s capital. The 600-foot high, 100,000 watt towers were monsters, able to transmit signals much farther than your standard AM or FM broadcast today.

The Navy Radio Station was the place where the term “radio” was first used to describe wireless voice transmissions. The towers also relayed the first successful overseas radio telephone message.

But perhaps the most dubious distinction came in 1916, when the towers were used to relay the results of the U.S. presidential election overseas. The transmission was heard around the world. Unfortunately, as this clip from a documentary celebrating Columbia Pike’s bicentennial explains, they got one important detail wrong.

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