Arlington, VA

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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Morning Notes

Children and parents gather around Santa and his fire truck in Fairlington

Local Man Wins ‘Ultimate Fighter’ — Arlington native Ryan Hall has captured the Ultimate Fighter title for his weight class after soundly defeating Artem Lobov in the Octagon on national television Friday. [Fox Sports]

New Ballston Apartments Rent Quickly — Less than a year after it opened, The Maxwell, a 163-unit luxury apartment building on N. Glebe Road in Ballston, is now 93 percent leased. [PR Newswire, Multifamily Biz]

County: Don’t Worry About Orange Tubes — Arlington County is telling residents not to worry about the orange plastic tubes they may see sprouting from the ground. The tubes are not part of a nefarious terrorist plot, they’re conduits for Arlington’s upgraded fiber optic traffic signal system. [Arlington County]

Local Nonspeaking Youth Present at Conference — Three nonspeaking Arlington students gave 10 minute TED-style talks at a disability advocacy conference in Portland, Oregon earlier this month. [Growing Kids Therapy Center]

Pet Photo Contest Cancelled — Our Dress Your Pet Like a James Bond Character photo contest has been cancelled. The contest was to promote a James Bond-themed New Years Eve event in Ballston that has since been cancelled due to a regulatory issue. Those who have already submitted photos for the contest will be contacted soon and given a consolation prize.

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Morning Notes

"Having fun with water at Penrose Square" (Flickr pool photo by Airamangel)

Gun Store Owner Blames Bloomberg — James Gates, the Marine Corps veteran who tried to open a gun store in Cherrydale, said that the cancellation of its lease after a neighborhood outcry was the fault of the former mayor of New York City. “When news of our planned location in Arlington became public, there were some local critics; however they enjoyed outsized influence when anti-civil rights campaigns backed by billionaire Michael Bloomberg picked up their cause,” Gates said in a statement. [Washington Times]

Bee Swarm at Arlington Home — Hundreds, maybe thousands of honey bees have taken up residence in the chimney of an Arlington home. The homeowner called ABC 7 On Your Side after beekeepers wouldn’t help her out, because the chimney was too high, and after learning that it’s against the law to kill the bees with pesticides. “It seems as a homeowner the bees have more of a right to live in my home than I do,” said Alex Casiano. “While I understand honey bees are important to our environment, honey bees don’t pay my rent.” [WJLA]

Salary Boost for Acting County Manager — Three weeks into the job, Acting County County Manager Mark Schwartz is getting a modest raise. The County Board agreed to boost his $204,000 salary as a Deputy County Manager by 10 percent during his time as Acting County Manager. His predecessor, Barbara Donnellan, earned $269,742 per year. [Arlington County]

Alexandria Wants Citywide Residential Fiber — Alexandria is seeking a partner to build a citywide fiber optic network to serve homes and businesses. Alexandria’s request for fiber after Verizon abandoned plans to build out FiOS service in the city. Arlington County has built its own municipal fiber network, but it so far is only available to county government, schools and businesses. [Ars Technica]

Falls Church Paper Throws Shade at Arlington — McLean residents are stymying the City of Falls Church’s plan to renovate a city elementary that’s located in Fairfax County. That, however, is being used by a newspaper to make some serious insinuations about Arlington. “The main way the City of Falls Church pisses off its much bigger neighbors is by being successful,” writes the Falls Church News-Press in an editorial. “It really frustrates those who imagine that there could be a lot of money to be made by someone, not in Falls Church, if the City threw its hands in the air and abandoned its independence, becoming a drop-in-the-bucket neighborhood of either Fairfax or Arlington instead. People with big money who’ve spent a lot of it on cultivating political appointees or elected officials to do their bidding in the neighboring jurisdictions are angered by the fact they don’t own Falls Church officials in the same way.” [Falls Church News-Press]

Flickr pool photo by Airamangel

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Fiber optic lines installed throughout ArlingtonIn a move long anticipated by some in the Arlington business community, the Arlington County Board approved the licensing of its ConnectArlington fiber optic network to private businesses.

The “dark fiber” will first be installed along the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, Glebe Road, on Columbia Pike and in Crystal City. It’s currently used to connect county government and schools facilities at “unprecedented” internet speeds, but, within a few months, businesses will be able to take advantage.

“This is an exciting step forward in Arlington’s plan to be a technological hub in our region,” County Board Chair Mary Hynes said in a press release. “Arlington’s strategic investments are building a technology infrastructure second to none, that will help us attract the businesses of the 21st century. Just as Arlington had the foresight to insist that Metro be built under the heart of our commercial corridors, it had the foresight, when building ConnectArlington, to build in additional capacity to meet future needs — for our businesses and County government.”

The first phase of expanding the program — adding fiber strands to the first 10-mile stretch in the county’s prime economic areas — is expected to cost $4.1 million up front, with a continuing $700,000-$800,000 operating cost.

The map of ConnectArlington's fiber lines (via Arlington Economic Development)Phase II of the program would add fiber to Shirlington, Lee Highway and western Columbia Pike, as well as run the fiber next to Arlington National Cemetery and the Pentagon (the red line in the map to the right). This stretch won’t be installed until the county evaluates the performance of Phase I.

County Board member Jay Fisette spoke to ARLnow.com in October about ConnectArlington, one of the initiatives he pushed last year for his economic competitiveness platform as board chairman.

“Innovation is not restricted to the private sector,” he said. “The capacity we’re putting into the network and making it accessible is an asset and competitive advantage over other jurisdictions.”

One of the speakers at Saturday’s County Board meeting, Jaroslav Flidr, said he works for the University of Maryland providing “services on top of dark fiber.” He praised the county for their decision, saying it has positioned itself for landing significant future office development.

“We have federal agencies like NASA, NIH and NSF [as clients],” Flidr told the Board. “In my experience, when these agencies look for where to locate future development, access to assets like dark fiber is, in their mind, one of their most important factors in their decision-making process; where to go, where to stay, where to relocate.”

Angela Fox, CEO of the Crystal City Business Improvement District, also lauded the program as an economic boon to the county.

“We can use this as an economic development tool to attract businesses to the area,” Fox said. “We want things like this, we need things like this, because it is a vicious market. We need tools in our toolbox to demonstrate why Arlington is a place they should be doing business.”

The county will license 864 strands of fiber to individual buildings and businesses, hicho can install connections to its lines and promote is as an asset, according to the staff report. The connections to the fiber must remain inside Arlington, to ensure it benefits the county and not one of its regional competitors. Each company can license a maximum of 40 strands at at time.

The county will charge licensing fees and recoup its costs, it says, but doesn’t yet have revenue projections because it’s unclear how the market will respond to the new, high-tech infrastructure.

Map (bottom) via Arlington Economic Development. Disclosure: The Crystal City BID is an ARLnow.com advertiser.

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