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Arlington County’s fiber optic network (via Arlington County)

Arlington County is surveying residents and businesses to understand how they use broadband internet service and if their access can be improved.

The results of the survey are part of a $250,000 study that could inform ways to bridge the digital divide between residents with good internet connectivity and those without it, using the county’s existing fiber-optic network, dubbed ConnectArlington.

“The Broadband study builds off past work to fill in information gaps and provide a clearer picture of the County’s broadband needs,” Erika Moore, a spokeswoman for Arlington County Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development, tells ARLnow.

Arlington has an extensive fiber network, which it installed seven years ago to provide connectivity for county and Arlington Public Schools facilities, support public safety needs and encourage economic development. She says this move has since saved the county money and now allows for additional uses, such as connecting traffic cameras, emergency services and colleges across the area.

Now, the county is partnering with Vienna-based consultant Televate to look at how to leverage what it has to bridge the digital divide, an issue exacerbated by the pandemic.

“Based upon gaps identified, the consultant will lay out a comparative evaluation of different service delivery models to address the County’s needs,” Moore said. “Depending upon the outcome of the study, the County may need additional analysis to further research a specific model.”

The study will also review a license agreement for leasing strands along an 864-count fiber line dedicated to economic development. The concept, intended to give local companies higher-speed internet at lower costs than big-name providers like Comcast, has languished because would-be providers found the agreement onerous. So far, only JBG Smith has agreed to lease some of the cable to help build its 5G-enabled “Smart City.”

“The likelihood of modifying the license or changing or adding other policies will be considered after the results of the study,” Moore said.

The survey, available now in English and Spanish, asks people a few dozen questions about internet use. Questions include how long respondents have used the internet and how much it contributes to their jobs, whether they use broadband for telehealth services, if they’re satisfied with the speed and cost, as well as demographic questions.

Moore says the county has studied the digital divide before but not on this comprehensive of a scale. Past research targeted low-income housing and relied on Federal Communications Commission and U.S. Census data.

This “did not provide the level of detail needed and gave no indication of service quality, bandwidth availability, provider competition, or digital literacy needs,” she said.

A coalition of local advocates for making broadband a county-provided utility say the scope seems redundant given past efforts, however.

“The county has studied the digital divide to death. We have good numbers on that,” says ArlFiber Collective leader Tim Dempsey, adding that ironically, the survey is long and only available online.

“Televate LLC, does not appear to be interested in seriously studying municipal broadband and the current course and scope of the study could very well reproduce the same work on broadband that has been done in the past, without moving us forward in any meaningful way,” ArlFiber wrote on its website. “Residents and civic groups that are interested in community broadband for all, should reach out to the County Board members and let them know.”

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A few weeks ago, seven-year-old Desmond Kelly was walking to school when he stepped on a utility cover and it collapsed.

“I didn’t know what to do so I put my arms out,” he said. “I was pretty shocked and amazed that I was able to catch myself before my feet hit the bottom.”

The fall happened at the northeast corner of S. Glebe Road and Arlington Blvd (Route 50), near Alice West Fleet Elementary School. His mother, Genevieve, said her son’s feet never touched the ground because the hole was so deep.

“It turns out that the cover gave way under his small body weight because it was made of rotted wood,” she said. “My son was agile enough to stick his elbows out to prevent himself from falling all the way through to the bottom of the hole and possibly breaking a leg.”

When Desmond’s mother reached out to ARLnow over the weekend, she noted the utility cover had yet to be repaired, although the issue happened several weeks ago.

“And other covers nearby look like they are about to cave in,” she said, including the utility cover at the southeast corner of the same intersection.

This cover is an access point for an underground fiber cable. Arlington County has about 1,700 “handholes” for fiber cable and other electrical cables linked to things like traffic signals or streetlights.

For issues with publicly and privately owned handholes — which are typically small and shallow, allowing workers to reach in and access the cables inside — the county in part relies on residents noticing and reporting issues through its Report-a-Problem tool. Using the online form, people can also bring attention to potholes, street light outages and make other maintenance requests.

This utility cover in question belongs to FiberLight, according to the Arlington Dept. of Environmental Services.

“When DES went out to inspect the area today, they placed the temporary metal cover and cones,” spokeswoman Katie O’Brien said. “FiberLight has been notified of the issue and are working with their contractor to repair it.”

DES also reached out to Level 3 Communications, the owner of the utility cover at the southeast corner of the eastbound on-ramp to Arlington Blvd, from S. Glebe Road, she said.

“The County has reached out to them and has requested that they inspect their cover and replace it if necessary,” she said.

People can report utility cover issues through the Report-a-Problem tool under “Utility Cover Damaged/Missing,” O’Brien said.

A screenshot of the Report-a-Problem tool (courtesy of Dept. of Environmental Services)
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Amazon and JBG Smith could one day brush off the dust on Arlington’s long-underused dark fiber network.

The Arlington County Board was scheduled to vote on issuing a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) for the tech giant and developer to discuss the “ConnectArtlington” network during its meeting this Saturday, November 16.

The network currently provides internet service to many county buildings, but was once promised to be a way for local businesses and organizations to also access access high-speed internet at faster speeds and cheaper rates than available from larger commercial providers like Verizon.

“The purpose of this item is to discuss the County’s Fiber Optic Network ‘ConnectArlington’,” said Jack Belcher, the county’s chief information officer, when asked for more information about the County Board item.

“An NDA is necessary as the fiber network and its location is considered critical infrastructure of the County,” he added.

Arlington previously spent $4.1 million building the 10-mile underground cable network. But in February, an ARLnow investigation revealed that almost no businesses were able to license the network due to “flawed” legal requirements.

A spokeswoman for Amazon told ARLnow that the county had included the dark fiber network in its pitch for the company’s second headquarters, and that the upcoming County Board vote was “just part of exploring everything that Arlington had included in the original proposal.”

https://twitter.com/alongthepike/status/1193298737013153793?s=20

“We don’t have specifics to share about our ongoing discussions but look forward to learning more about the program,” the company spokeswoman told ARLnow, adding that the NDA will allow the county to “fully brief” Amazon about the capabilities of the network.

However, the exact details for how Amazon and JBG Smith could use the network are murky.

County staffers removed the Amazon item from the agenda after ARLnow called company and county officials for comment yesterday (Tuesday), keeping JBG Smith’s NDA consideration in the agenda document.

“Agenda Item #18 was removed because the County wasn’t able to get feedback yet from the company,” said county spokeswoman Jennifer Smith.

JBG Smith declined to comment when asked for more information about the company’s interest in the network.

And as of today (Wednesday) at 12:30 p.m., the agenda included no staff reports to the Board with more information about the items. Smith said the documents had not been uploaded due to a “technical issue” and were due to be published later today.

As for other organizations looking to “light” the dark fiber network?

“Parties are able to use the fiber network and we are in negotiations with several entities today to also use it,” Belcher said.

Aboveground, Arlington has also approved a proposal for a faster, more advanced 5G cellular network.

Nearby, Alexandria is putting out a bid to build its own dark fiber network as well.

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Residents of an affordable housing complex in Arlington Mill could soon get access to free wi-fi, thanks to the county’s own fiber optic network — but is that legal?

It’s a question that vexes broadband experts and legal observers alike, who see the county potentially running afoul of some restrictive state laws, even though the project happens to be in service of a good cause.

The county’s plans for this “Digital Inclusion Initiative” over at the Arlington Mill Residences have attracted new scrutiny as local officials and a team of independent experts have begun studying the “ConnectArlington” dark fiber network.

That group identified a whole host of problems with the county’s management of the program, which was designed to build on Arlington’s existing fiber network to provide high-speed internet to local businesses. The county already uses the network to link its facilities together, and expanded it in 2015.

The experts did not identify any issues with the Arlington Mill project, specifically, in a report they prepared for county staff, but some members of that “Broadband Advisory Committee” told ARLnow that they harbor deep concerns about it. And a survey of other lawyers specializing in telecommunications policy reveals that it’s entirely unclear whether the project’s structure is actually legal under state law.

Arlington officials and attorneys believe they’re perfectly within the bounds of the law with their efforts, and the county held a community celebration to kick off the installation of some internet equipment last month.

Thus far, county leaders have billed it as a pilot project, which could inform other efforts to connect communities that lack access to low-cost internet. Officials are particularly enthusiastic about its potential to connect students living at Arlington Mill with the internet, closing the “homework gap” and helping kids get online and keep up with their increasingly high tech studies.

But, at the very least, experts fear this means that the county has wandered into a confusing legal gray area that could invite future court challenges.

“They’re doing it for the right reasons, and I don’t fault them for it,” said Chris Rozycki, a member of the county’s Broadband Advisory Committee with 30 years of telecom regulatory experience. “But I think they know they’re tiptoeing onto thin ice here.”

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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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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

WeWork Coming to Rosslyn — Another coworking space is coming to Rosslyn. WeWork is reportedly coming to three floors near the top of the new CEB Tower. [Washington Business Journal]

Board Passes Four Mile Run Plan — Despite some dissatisfaction among those who live in a nearby community, the Arlington County Board voted unanimously to adopt as-is the proposed Four Mile Run Valley Park Master Plan and Design Guidelines, which includes “a comprehensive Master Plan for Jennie Dean Park and Shirlington Park, with short and mid-term recommendations for maintaining and improving Shirlington Dog Park.” [Arlington County]

Memorial Bridge Closure Rescheduled — Due to high river levels, work on and the closure of the Arlington Memorial Bridge has been rescheduled to this coming weekend. [Twitter, National Park Service]

Salt Storage Structure Approved — “The Arlington County Board today voted to allow the County to build an interim salt storage structure before winter sets in, on County-owned property on Old Dominion Drive, between 25th Road N. and 26th Street N.” [Arlington County]

Scooter Injury in Crystal City — A woman on a motorized scooter reportedly suffered a dislocated elbow after she accidentally ran into a wall in the Crystal City area Friday evening. The safety of the electric rental scooters has been questioned both locally and nationally. [Twitter]

Coming ‘Flood’ of Medicaid Applicants — “The Arlington County Board today voted unanimously to accept state funding that will help pay for additional staff needed to process an expected flood of new applications for Medicaid under the state’s expanded program, Cover Virginia… ‘Under the expanded program, we expect 3,000 more County residents will qualify. Childless low-income adults with no disabilities, a group previously excluded, and families and persons with disabilities whose income previously was not considered to be low enough to qualify will now be eligible for coverage.'” [Arlington County]

Packer Drops By Clarendon Day — Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones, in town for Sunday’s game against the Redskins — the local team ended up upsetting the visitors 31-17 — dropped by Clarendon Day on Saturday. He also posed for a photo with Arlington County police. [Twitter]

APS Wires 40 Schools for Fiber Connection — “Arlington Public Schools (APS) is kicking off the 2018-19 school year with a brand-new connection–ConnectArlington. Thanks to a yearlong collaboration, 40 Arlington school facilities are now up and running on the County’s own fiber optic network. APS made the switch from a commercial provider to take advantage of ConnectArlington’s high-speed, dedicated network for digital telecommunications and broadband services.” [Arlington County]

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Morning Notes

Primary Voting Underway — It’s an election day in Virginia. On the ballot in Arlington is the Democratic race for County Board, between Chanda Choun and Matt de Ferranti, and the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, with candidates Corey Stewart, Nick Freitas and E. W. Jackson. Voting will continue through 7 p.m. [Twitter]

Post-Parade Party in Courthouse — Those heading to the Capitals Stanley Cup victory parade downtown today can head on back to Arlington for an afterparty at Arlington Rooftop Bar & Grill, hosted by the Caps blog Russian Machine Never Breaks. The event starts at 3 p.m. [RMNB]

Final Issue of ‘The Citizen’ — Arlington County’s “The Citizen” newsletter is publishing its last issue this week. The county-run publication is ceasing its print issues due to budget cuts. The move was lamented by the Sun Gazette, which wrote that The Citizen provided “information that, most likely, many local residents will now not get, despite the government’s plethora of online-centric public-relations efforts.” [InsideNova]

Clement: Strip Washington from W-L Too — Independent Arlington School Board candidate Audrey Clement says it is “hypocrisy in the extreme” for the “Lee” in “Washington-Lee High School” to be removed without also removing “Washington.” Wrote Clement: “Had not George Washington, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson — all Virginia native sons and all slave holders — greased the skids of institutionalized slavery by agreeing to write it into the U.S. Constitution, Lee would not have taken up arms against his own nation.” [Audrey Clement]

Apartment Building to Get Free Broadband — “Arlington’s Digital Inclusion Initiative, announced in December 2017, will leverage the County’s fiber-optic network, ConnectArlington, to bring free broadband Internet access to low- and moderate-income households in Arlington, including those with school-age children. Arlington Mill Residences, a low- and moderate-income residential development, will serve as the demonstration project for the initiative.” [Arlington County]

Paving on Lorcom Lane — Crews are paving Lorcom Lane between N. Fillmore and Daniel streets today. [Twitter]

Nearby: Second Northside Social Opens — The new Falls Church outpost of Clarendon cafe Northside Social has opened in the Little City. “The business itself will offer a menu similar to its Clarendon location, but a basement that allows for a commercial-sized bakery and chef Matt Hill’s creative inklings will provide new lunch and dinner options.” [Falls Church News-Press]

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FCC logoAn FCC commissioner is questioning an Arlington Public Schools plan to build a backup fiber optic network with the help of federal funds.

Commissioner Mike O’Rielly, a Republican appointed by President Obama, says the APS plan, first reported by ARLnow.com, is an example of wasteful “overbuilding” under the federal E-rate program.

E-rate is funded via Universal Service Fund fees and is intended to make “telecommunications and information services more affordable for schools and libraries in America.”

O’Rielly, however, said in a Feb. 10 letter that APS using E-rate to pay for half the costs of building a backup system — when a county-run fiber system and Comcast connections are available — is “troubling.”

“As an initial matter, I do not believe that our rules permit funding for backup networks,” O’Rielly writes. “Regardless, I see absolutely no justification for using E-rate funds for such a purpose. Instead, any universal service funding for broadband deployment should be targeted… to underserved communities most in need of support.”

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Fiber optic lines installed throughout ArlingtonMonday marked a milestone for the county’s multimillion dollar ConnectArlington fiber optic network: It has completed phase one of migrating Arlington Public Schools to the system and off of Comcast’s internet access.

But as APS prepares to enter phase two of the migration, it also has an open request for proposals (RFP) to build another fiber network, a potentially pricey project that it says is a “contingency plan.”

With phase one complete, 14 APS sites are now on the ConnectArlington network. Another 23 are expected be online by December.

Early last month, however, APS issued an RFP for a contractor to build a new fiber network for the school system. Proposals originally were due Monday, but the deadline has been extended to January 17. APS is supposed to choose a contractor for the project “as soon after that date as possible,” according to an addendum to the RFP. The RFP states that the new network must be constructed and functioning by April 2018.

APS says the additional fiber network is a contingency plan and ConnectArlington still will be its primary network. Therefore, APS will continue moving forward as planned with getting the next bunch of sites online with ConnectArlington by year’s end.

“APS is contracting for a backup system to remain in place until we know that ConnectArlington is complete and fully functional. With all of our instructional, testing, business functions and state reporting requirements, APS cannot risk not having a viable network infrastructure in place if ConnectArlington is delayed and not completed for any unforeseen reason,” said APS spokesman Frank Bellavia.

“Like the insurance policies we purchase to protect the investment in our buildings, buses and other critical components of APS operations, we hope we will never need the insurance, but those policies are in place — just in case,” said Linda Erdos, assistant superintendent for school and community relations

Arlington County communications director Bryna Helfer said that the remaining 21 county and 23 school sites included in the ConnectArlington project’s phase two — which begins in March — will continue to receive Comcast service until they’re fully migrated in December.

The county says that it cannot speak for APS’ desire for another fiber network but asserted that the ConnectArlington network has been performing for nearly two years without issue.

Crews installing fiber optic cables on Wilson Blvd“We are completely confident that we will install fiber into every planned county and school facility by the end of calendar year 2017, based on our previous years’ experience with the construction and operation of this project,” said James Schwartz, deputy county manager for public safety and technology.

In addition to the 14 APS buildings and 33 county buildings on the network thus far, Schwartz said, more than 130 traffic signals have been connected. Plus, the public safety radio system — previously supported by microwave antenna — has been migrated to ConnectArlington and “is operating without a problem,” according to Schwartz.

“This system allows fire, EMS and police to communicate during emergencies and requires the highest reliability standard — that standard is being met by ConnectArlington,” he said.

APS spokespeople say the backup fiber network is eligible for federal E-Rate funds, which assist schools and libraries with obtaining affordable telecommunications and internet access. The Federal Communications Commission explains that the discount a school district receives depends on two factors: “(1) the poverty level of the population the applicant serves and (2) whether the applicant is located in a rural or urban area.”

“The RFP ensures that APS can receive a potential 50 percent reimbursement of [the backup fiber network] costs through the federal government’s E-Rate funds,” Bellavia said.

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Morning Notes

Boxed water at Roti restaurant in Rosslyn

Elementary School’s Satellite Launches — A “CubeSat” satellite built by students at St. Thomas More Cathedral School in Arlington was launched from the International Space Station yesterday. It’s the first time an elementary school CubeSat has been deployed into space. [CBS NewsThe Register, Twitter]

ConnectArlington Program Makes New Connection — Arlington County’s ConnectArlington fiber optic network is getting access to a collaborative research network of universities, industries and government agencies via the University of Maryland’s Mid-Atlantic Crossroads access point. The move is expected to help with economic development in Arlington. [Arlington County]

Shirlington Restaurant Investigated — The U.S. Dept. of Labor is reportedly investigating labor law violations at Aroma Indian Cuisine restaurant in Shirlington. [Patch]

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