Legal Experts Fear County Has Strayed Onto ‘Thin Ice’ With Arlington Mill Internet Project

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.”

Finding an alternative

When the county first rolled out the “Digital Inclusion” project in December 2017, it looked a bit different than it does now.

The County Board agreed to hand over $94,500 in grant money to the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, which manages the Arlington Mill complex. The nonprofit, commonly known as APAH, would then use that money to contract with an internet service provider to “light” the county’s dark fiber, which already connects to the nearby Arlington Mill Community Center.

In essence, that means the ISP would facilitate internet service for the complex, something that state law currently bars localities from doing on their own.

Rozycki’s company, a local ISP known as “Potomac Fiber,” initially worked to strike a deal with APAH and the county to light the fiber.

However, that’s where Rozycki ran into many of the problems the committee identified in its report on ConnectArlington. Potomac Fiber would need to lease some strands of the fiber network from the county to make the project work, but Rozycki found many of the terms the county’s lawyers demanded quite onerous.

Much like the rest of the panel of experts that studied ConnectArlington, Rozycki believed that the proposed terms of the deal pushed all of the risk onto his company, while avoiding any for Arlington. For instance, he felt the contract’s five-year term wasn’t long enough to give his investors confidence, and he was deeply concerned about a provision that would’ve let the county revoke Potomac Fiber’s access to the network infrastructure with only limited notice.

“I would’ve lost my investors if I’d signed it,” Rozycki said. “I had to walk away.”

APAH went about searching for another ISP to light the fiber instead, but didn’t have much luck. The broadband commission believes that the structure of the ConnectArlington program effectively scares away any company from leasing the fiber network, and officials concede that many of those problems were evident in the Arlington Mill effort.

“We had to find another way to make it happen,” said Jack Belcher, the county’s chief information officer and head of its Department of Technology Services.

But by summer 2018, Belcher and the county’s technical staff managed to find what they believed was a workaround. The county would use its dark fiber to provide “switched access connectivity” between the complex and another internet service provider, allowing APAH to contract with an ISP out near Ashburn, the Loudoun County suburb that acts as a hub for the majority of all internet traffic across the globe.

Essentially, Belcher says the county is setting aside a few strands of its fiber to act as a “conduit” for APAH, helping the nonprofit buy high-speed internet at a significantly lower price than they might find from a local ISP.

“When you get out there, all of a sudden, you’re dealing with the wholesalers of the internet,” Belcher said. “What that does is gets them out there, they negotiate their own deal. We’re sort of a carriage out there.”

After the Board signed off on the arrangement in July, APAH was able to have much more success in finding an ISP partner. Nathaniel Root, a data analyst and systems architect for APAH, says the nonprofit now has a contract with Crown Castle to provide a 1 gigabit per second connection to the complex.

Crown Castle was founded in Houston, but now operates in communities including Baltimore, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Palo Alto, California, according to its website.

“We’re not selling services,” Belcher said. “All we’re doing is carrying the services out to somebody else who is providing the services for them.”

A ‘gobblygoop’ explanation?

But that distinction is where things get a bit complicated for the county.

Rozycki puts it quite bluntly — when presented with Belcher’s explanation of the technical arrangement at Arlington Mill, he quipped “the word ‘gobblygoop’ comes to mind.” He believes that the county’s mention of “switched access connectivity” is merely a “made-up term” designed to obscure the project’s purpose.

“What they’re doing is, in essence, being an ISP,” Rozycki said. “From the explanation, I have no idea what they are doing, but it sure sounds to me like they are providing internet service. The law does not allow them to be a service provider, but I am not a lawyer.”

Rozycki is leaning on his years of work as director of telecommunications for the South Carolina Office of Regulatory Staff, which has oversight of broadband issues, to make such a judgement. And others with law degrees themselves have come to much the same conclusion.

Part of the problem for Arlington is that Virginia telecom law is restrictive. Like many other states, Virginia bars localities themselves from using their fiber networks to provide internet service — the influence of major telecom companies to close off government-funded competition is a key point of tension for many community broadband advocates.

In some cases, state law does allow for communities to form publicly owned cooperatives that can build networks and offer internet service. However, attorneys note that the law is extremely restrictive, making it very difficult for localities to form those networks in the first place.

“It’s kind of absurd, but that’s the law they’re confronted with,” said Doug Jarrett, an attorney specializing in broadband and telecom law at the D.C.-based Keller and Heckman, LLP. “I don’t know how they get around that.”

Jarrett feels it’s a “tough call” whether the county’s arrangement is legal, but the unusual setup and the strictures of Virginia’s laws give him great pause about how it might stand up in court.

David Reischer, an attorney specializing in business law in New York and the CEO of legaladvice.com, is similarly skeptical of the project. He expects that the arrangement could work, but he fears the county could run into trouble if Arlington Mill residents experience any “service interruptions” and the county has to take responsibility for resolving those.

“Providing ‘switched access connectivity’ is a temporary solution because there are so many other issues that Virginia state law contemplated to operate as an ISP, including handling of personal data and general protection of user privacy,” Reischer said. “This middle ground solution of ‘switched access connectivity’ by the county will certainly get tested.”

Deputy County Attorney MinhChau Corr believes the Arlington Mill project is perfectly legal, noting that the ISP that APAH hired provides an “extra layer” between the apartment complex and the county. In her office’s view, the county is clearly not acting as an ISP, but merely giving the nonprofit “a gift” to enable this internet service.

“We gave them access to the dark fiber and then gave them money, and since they’re a nonprofit, they’re eligible to receive that kind of gift from us,” Corr said.

Who decides what’s legal?

Jarrett expects that a simple way to resolve any question about this project’s legality would be seeking some input from the state.

Both Jarrett and Rozycki assumed that the most logical entity to tackle this debate would be the State Corporation Commission, a regulatory agency that (among other functions) reviews utility and telephone rates. The SCC is similar to the agency in South Carolina that Rozycki once worked in, and has oversight over many telecom policies in the state.

“If the SCC has to get involved, arguably they could say [to Arlington], ‘Go ahead and do what you need to,'” Jarrett said.

But the SCC has never reviewed the project in any capacity, said agency spokesman Ken Schrad. That’s because he doesn’t believe the SCC has the authority to have “any involvement” in this area.

“I am not aware of any state agency that would be involved,” Schrad said.

Rozycki’s only other guess for a resource at the state level would be Attorney General Mark Herring’s office. Herring’s lawyers frequently review legal disputes in localities, and can offer binding (or non-binding) opinions on those matters.

However, it would seem the state’s attorneys have yet to study the Arlington Mill project either.

“This doesn’t appear to be an issue that’s been on our radar,” said Michael Kelly, Herring’s spokesman.

That’s not to say that the dispute couldn’t find its way to Herring’s office at some point. Rozycki expects that a company upset about the project could file a complaint with the attorney general, or simply sue the county.

But, put simply, very few people who have examined the project have any idea how any challenge to it might proceed.

“I am not sure how this plays out,” Rozycki said. “The laws have not kept up with the changes in technology and the industry.”

Rozycki doesn’t think it’s overly likely that a smaller ISP would sue — as the CEO of one himself, he points out that they generally “don’t have the time or the money” to litigate such an issue.

But larger telecom giants, who pushed for many of the provisions limiting state-run networks in the first place, might not be so charitable.

“I have some empathy for the outcome they’re trying to get to here,” Jarrett said. “But the law they have to dance around is terribly unfortunate, particularly where Verizon and Comcast can use it to deal with any competition anywhere.”

Photo via Google Maps

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

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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EXCLUSIVE: Arlington Spent $4.1 Million on a 10-Mile Dark Fiber Network, But No One’s Using It

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.)

Rozycki also works as the CEO of Potomac Fiber, a local internet service provider, and he says the lack of connections to large office buildings, known as “laterals,” would be particularly challenging for a company like his.

“We would have to bore into each building we’d want to serve, even if it was only for one or two customers,” Rozycki said. “And for building owners themselves, none of them want to be internet service providers. They don’t have technology or the resources, they need someone like us.”

The county also had problems attracting ISPs to use the ConnectArlington fiber and facilitating those sorts of connections. The committee identified the terms of the license agreement officials asked companies to sign to use the fiber as “a huge barrier to entry.”

“It wasn’t written in a digital context,” said Mary Crannell, a member of the broadband committee and the head of a local technology consulting firm. “It used the context of other negotiations, not the digital world.”

The document is full of legal jargon and complex provisions — a copy of the agreement provided to ARLnow clocks in at 72 pages long — which worried some prospective customers.

Committee member Deb Socia says she’s seen all manner of communities leasing out dark fiber have success with considerably shorter, less complex agreements. She heads a group called Next Century Cities, which works with dozens of localities around the country to champion access to high-speed broadband, Arlington included.

“We have seen that a simple and straightforward lease agreement can help to ensure that the asset brings the most value to the community,” Socia said.

The agreement also allows the county to boot ISPs off the network with just one year’s worth of notice, complicating any efforts by an ISP to sign customers to long-term deals. Rozycki said the terms of the agreement pushes so much risk on to his company that his investors threatened a revolt when he tried to sign a deal with Arlington.

“I had to put on my Donald Trump face and walk away, because I had no guarantee I could survive a year,” Rozycki said. “There’s no reason that they would take [our access] away, but the fact that it was in the contract had my investors say, ‘No.'”

That sort of risk-averse position by county officials meant that even businesses that found an ISP willing to hook them up to the dark fiber faced issues.

Chris Wargo, the co-founder of security consulting firm Infolock, says he spent close to a year working to get access to ConnectArlington.

After confirming that a lateral was already installed to link the network to his company’s office building at the Village at Shirlington, he approached the county about the prospect and quickly found a local ISP to light the fiber. From the preliminary numbers he saw, Wargo says he could’ve managed a “major cost savings” getting fiber access through the county.

But after months of back-and-forth, Wargo got word from county lawyers that it’d be impossible for him to lease the fiber, and he was forced to work with a large ISP instead.

“Arlington paid for this, they built this: it’s my money,” Wargo said. “My money’s in the ground for a service I could benefit from and I’m not allowed to use it… From a common sense perspective, it’s ludicrous.”

Legal limitations

County leaders say that the decision to turn down Wargo was anything but simple, much like the rest of the problems identified by the report. Officials argue that everything from restrictive state laws to the county’s obligation to protect tax dollars have hamstrung their efforts to make ConnectArlington a success.

“All of those things we did made sense at the time, but it didn’t work,” said Jack Belcher, the county’s chief information officer and head of its Department of Technology Services. “We’re not trying to hide anything. What it is is what it is.”

In Wargo’s case, Belcher says Infolock’s building was only connected to the dark fiber in the first place because it’s also home to a radio tower powering 911 service in the county. Once lawyers took a look at the situation, Belcher says they determined the ISP couldn’t use the same equipment designated for such an important purpose.

“It came down to a prohibition that said it’s set aside for the public safety radio network and couldn’t be used for other purposes,” Belcher said.

County attorneys saw additional legal problems with building laterals on private property, as such a move could similarly be a “great liability” for the county, Belcher said.

“That’s money that the county is bearing,” said Deputy County Attorney MinhChau Corr. “Let’s say Amazon wants to use one and, for whatever reason, it’s damaged and their business gets disrupted for 10 minutes. I wouldn’t want to be on the hook for Amazon’s 10-minute disruption.”

Rozycki said he “broke out laughing” when he heard that same sort of argument from county lawyers, considering how safe this sort of equipment is to use. Even Belcher admits he’s a bit skeptical of such thinking.

“It’s fiber optics, you’re not going to get electrocuted by fiber optics,” Belcher said. “You may prick your finger, but it’ll last 50 years, and once you make that connection, you’ll be fine.”

Crannell argues that it’s perfectly reasonable for the county to harbor such concerns, considering that officials are “entrusted to be stewards of taxpayer dollars.” As she puts it, county lawyers are “just doing their jobs, they’re not the villains in this.”

Still, she believes that the county’s problems demonstrate a clear need for a “different mindset” when it comes to managing the program. On that front, Belcher agrees, particularly when it comes to rethinking a license agreement that he concedes is a bit outdated.

“We operate under policies and procedures that have served us well for 60, 70 years,” Belcher said. “But the pace of tech is so fast that it’s just bypassed what we do.”

The fiber’s future

For its part, the committee urged the county in its report to remove the “poison pills” and “contract traps” in the agreement that scared away companies like Rozycki’s. The group also urged the county to rewrite the agreement “in plain English,” offer longer lease terms and provide “adequate remedies other than contract termination” should problems arise with the network.

And Belcher and Corr both say the county’s technical workers and lawyers are already huddling up on the best way to revise the license agreement to make it more palatable to ISPs.

“There’s been a lot of movement based on the report,” Belcher said.

But there are other steps the committee recommends as well. The group hopes to see the county build new laterals, offer grants to companies hoping to do the same and advertise incentives to ISPs looking to enter the market.

Brent Skorup, a member of the committee and a senior research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, even wrote a special section of the report recommending that the county let companies use the network as a chance to experiment with autonomous vehicle technology. He points out that cities like Atlanta and Austin have had success with similar programs, and he reasons that the network’s proximity to major roadways would be a boon, rather than a hindrance, for such a purpose.

“They could be promoting innovation and allowing a permissive environment for companies to use this network if they can,” Skorup said.

Yet all those aforementioned changes would require the County Board’s sign off, and there’s no telling when officials will debate the issue.

Belcher says the committee presented the bulk of its findings to Schwartz and other staffers last June, before delivering a fully finalized version of the report in mid-January.

Rozycki, who drafted most of the document, says the draft Schwartz and others saw this summer was virtually the same as the final one — Belcher chalks up the delay in issuing the finished product to a series of vacations and some staff turnover, not major changes in the report.

That leaves the matter with Schwartz, who has now had months to decide what to recommend to the Board.

Despite ConnectArlington’s problems, Belcher hopes the county’s leadership will decide to recommit to the program. While officials had once entertained selling the network to someone else, he thinks it has huge potential to enable new partnerships with everyone from local hospitals to Amazon.

“Getting rid of it at this point, I think, is a mistake,” Belcher said. “We have the opportunity to leverage it in so many ways as a county.”

For all their criticism, committee members agree. Socia says she applauds the county’s “willingness to look for ways to more fully utilize” the network, instead of simply giving up.

Rozycki is even cautiously optimistic that the county can someday make use of its hefty investment in the project, so long as it can successfully lure in a few ISPs. But he expects that managing that feat will require a truly thoughtful response to the program’s problems.

“They have the makings of something really interesting there,” Rozycki said. “They just need the right people and partners to make it work.”

Flickr photo via Arlington Dept. Environmental Services

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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 Commissioner Questions APS Backup Fiber System Plan

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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APS May Build Backup Fiber System Alongside County’s Network

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.

Because the RFP is still open, it’s unclear how much the contingency network will ultimately cost. But so far APS has spent just over $400,000 for the ConnectArlington project, according to APS assistant superintendent of finance and management services Leslie Peterson.

“The county indicates the budget to complete the initial [ConnectArlington] build-out for schools is $1.9 million and they expect to come in under budget,” she said.

David Talbot, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society who researches municipal fiber business models but doesn’t have direct knowledge of APS’ plans, said installing public fiber networks provides multiple benefits — including expanded bandwidth and reduced connectivity costs — for communities across the country.

“Fiber has huge value for public agencies, and this value will only grow with societal needs and the rise of smart-city and school applications, including to help kids at home,” Talbot said. “And when public networks are used to provide service to homes and businesses, it provides competition that tends to improve service quality and drive down prices for all.”

That reduced cost is one of the factors that prompted the county to pursue ConnectArlington in the first place.

“Had the county not built ConnectArlington, it could have been charged substantial annual costs to continue using the Comcast fiber network,” Schwartz said.

In 2015, the county approved a plan to expand ConnectArlington beyond government and to license the dark fiber to private businesses for economic development purposes. The construction of that portion of the network was completed in March 2016; testing and configuring continued through May 2016.

Thus far, no businesses have signed licenses for the service, but “we have connected Virginia Tech and the University of Maryland-Mid Atlantic Crossroads to provide for Internet2 and research, government and higher ed connectivity,” Helfer said. “And we are working with a number of interested parties from the business community whose requests for access are currently under review.”

The county plans to launch a marketing campaign for the private business service “in the coming months, one that we believe will help attract and retain businesses in Arlington,” Helfer said. “With our dark fiber in place, we are offering businesses a new choice for telecommunications.”

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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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Arlington Approves Licensing ‘Dark Fiber’ Connection to Businesses

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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Arlington Expanding Fiber Network to Businesses

Fiber optic lines installed throughout ArlingtonArlington County has announced that it is expanding ConnectArlington, its high-speed fiber optic program that connects county government and school buildings, and making it available to Arlington businesses.

The county’s unused fiber optic capacity, or “dark fiber,” will provide not only significantly faster data speeds for businesses — the county says the speed is “unprecedented” — but also a more secure connection that can be used between contractors and federal agencies like the Pentagon.

Officials expect the program to provide an economic boost to the county.

“Arlington will be the only place for businesses to receive this level of service and security and will be the only place offering such dedicated lines to the nation’s top defense and research organizations,” Arlington County Board Chair Jay Fisette said in a press release. “The opportunities ConnectArlington gives Arlington businesses are endless; we anticipate this game-changing infrastructure will attract jobs and innovative investments to our community.”

When ConnectArlington was installed for county businesses and services in 2012, the county said it will improve traffic management, public transportation and 911 response time.

Companies will be able to lease the dark fiber over the next year as Arlington works with a third-party consultant to make “the service easily available,” according to the press release. The full rollout is expected to be complete by early 2015.

Being able to use the county’s existing fiber capacity will provide businesses with connectivity that would otherwise have been prohibitively expensive and/or logistically complicated to get on their own.

The full press release, after the jump.

ARLINGTON, Va. – Arlington has announced the expansion of its wildly successful ConnectArlington program. Originally designed to bring high-speed fiber connectivity to County government, school and community buildings, this next phase of the project brings Arlington businesses the opportunity to connect at speeds infinitely faster than currently available anywhere in the Capital region. Additionally, ConnectArlington now provides direct, dedicated dark fiber with the highest levels of security to provide unprecedented opportunities for secure collaboration with the nation’s top defense and research agencies, including the Pentagon. This connectivity brings Arlington’s technology infrastructure to the forefront of not only the region, but the entire country.

“Arlington will be the only place for businesses to receive this level of service and security and will be the only place offering such dedicated lines to the nation’s top defense and research organizations,” said Arlington County Board Chair Jay Fisette. “The opportunities ConnectArlington gives Arlington businesses are endless; we anticipate this game-changing infrastructure will attract jobs and innovative investments to our community.”

As the service rolls out over the next year, Arlington will work with a third-party consultant to manage the leasing of the dark fiber to multiple service providers, which will ensure the service is easily available. Additionally, the County will work directly with property owners and various businesses to ensure they have the opportunity for this high-speed and secure fiber line via direct access to buildings. Arlington universities, research centers, government buildings and Federal agencies will also be connected – providing additional collaboration opportunities at unprecedented levels of speed and security.

“World class cities are not only creating fiber networks to meet their own enterprise needs, but are also making dark fiber available to high technology companies to keep or attract these companies to their communities,” said Professor Joseph Pelton, Chair of the Arlington County IT Advisory Commission. “With this level of service, ConnectArlington will be the best in the nation.” Added Arlington Economic Development Commission Chair Sally Duran, “This program of leasing dark fiber to local businesses sets Arlington apart from neighboring communities as well as nationally and globally.”

ConnectArlington was originally developed by Arlington County Government to connect all of the County’s facilities and the public school system together using high-speed broad band technology through the use of underground dark (dedicated) fiber. At that time, Arlington had the foresight to recognize the need for additional resources and technological capability in the future, therefore installing additional conduits in the ground to enable the County to expand its use of dark fiber. The scenario is much like Arlington’s foresight to run transit through its major corridors to prepare for and enhance our smart growth development.

“Providing this connectivity is the next phase of our smart growth strategy,” said Arlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan. “We are moving to meet the current and future needs of our business community, to provide for our community’s long-term sustainability.”

File photo

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Morning Notes

Campbell Students Allowed Back on Bus — Students who were bused to Campbell Elementary School last year but were judged to be in the “walk zone” this year will be allowed back on the bus. Arlington Public Schools made the decision to diverge from its controversial Transportation Modernization Plan after 20 families threatened to pull their children from Campbell and enroll them at their neighborhood school, Carlin Springs Elementary, which is over capacity. [Arlington Mercury]

Fairfax Wants Say in Arlington School Expansion — Officials in Fairfax County want to review and analyze the Arlington Public Schools plan to add 300 middle school students and 600 elementary school students to the Williamsburg Middle School campus, which is near McLean. Fairfax officials are concerned about the traffic impact to McLean neighborhoods. [Sun Gazette]

County Approves New Fiber Optic Contract — On Saturday the Arlington County Board approved a $5.37 million contract to build an additional stage of the ConnectArlington fiber optic network. The fiber optic project approved over the weekend will connect 50 county and school facilities. [Arlington County]

Ballston Restaurant Has ‘Best Wings’ — First Down Sports Bar and Grill, at 4213 N. Fairfax Drive in Ballston, has some of the best wings in the D.C. area, according to the Washington Post’s Going Out Guide. First Down offers some 40 flavors of wings and an all-you-can-eat wing night on Wednesday. [Washington Post]

High School Football Update — Bishop O’Connell’s football squad won its homecoming game against Bishop McNamara on Saturday, by a score of 31-14. Yorktown trounced Falls Church on Friday, with a 48-0 win that brought the school’s record to 8-0. Washington-Lee and the winless Wakefield Warriors both lost Friday night.

Flickr pool photo by Christaki

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Fiber Optic Lines to Improve County Operations

The first phase of the county’s project to install fiber optic lines — an effort to upgrade outdated copper lines installed nearly 30 years ago — is nearly complete.

So far, about one-third of what will be 60 miles of line has been installed in sections stretching from Clarendon to Glebe Road in Ballston, down Glebe Road to Columbia Pike, and east to the Air Force Memorial. The project, which has been dubbed ConnectArlington, will eventually link over 90 individual sites around the county.

The new network will allow for more communication capacity thanks to increased bandwith compared with the old copper lines. In addition to connecting government buildings and structures, officials say it’s designed to improve communications with residents as well.

With the new network, residents will experience improved service for calls to 911. Up until now, the county’s towers for emergency radio communications worked via microwave. Factors like overgrown foliage and bad weather can interfere with microwave signals, but shouldn’t affect the new fiber optic system. The lines also allow for command centers throughout the county that can be activated in case of emergencies.

“Everybody wants to be able to communicate more and more,” said Jack Belcher with the county’s Department of Technology Services. “So the more we can put into this network the better, as far as residents communicating with us.”

The system is also expected to improve traffic management and public transportation with an intelligent transportation system. Such a system should allow for automatic adjustments of signal timing when traffic patterns suddenly change, like during an accident.

Another benefit of the fiber optics is a redundant network. That means a break in one line should still allow information to transfer via another route along the network. Belcher said that will prevent entire buildings from experiencing outages, which sometimes happens under the current system.

Currently, the focus is on wiring what’s considered the infrastructure “backbone” of the system, including nearly 60 traffic signals and 11 public safety ports. The ultimate goal is to add 32 county buildings and 18 Arlington Public Schools buildings to the network. The first stage of that process is slated to begin in fall of 2013.

“The easy part is building the core network, like traffic signals and radio tower,” said Belcher. “The challenge will be expanding to the schools and the county buildings down the road.”

Construction on the first phase is wrapping up, and the next phase, which will include work in Shirlington and Fairlington, is expected to be completed in the spring or summer of next year. The third phase involves various traffic signals north of Route 50. Work on that is expected sometime between 2013 and 2015, pending funding approval.

Photo courtesy Arlington County

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