Fed up with waiting for faster Internet access, two Northern Virginia governments are trying to prompt the development of fiber-optic broadband networks by creating them or partnering with entities that can.
Alexandria is seeking proposals from organizations that want to work with the city to create a fiber-optic backbone network that can be used by public institutions — such as libraries, school and public safety agencies — and by businesses, residents and nonprofit groups.
Five months ago, Arlington County decided to offer access to its own 10-mile fiber-optic network to companies located in the county’s major commercial areas as an economic development incentive.
“Broadband is the new transit. It’s sort of a must-have for any business,” said Stephanie Landrum, president and chief executive of the Alexandria Economic Partnership. “Seven years ago, only people working in technology or the federal government needed access to the highest speeds and capacity for broadband connectivity. Now it’s becoming an expectation that business people and those working in the nonprofit sector have it too.”
Although Verizon Fios offers a high-speed fiber-optic network in much of the Washington region, it is not available everywhere. And although cable firms such as RCN and Comcast offer what they call high-speed Internet access, experts say fiber-optic service is 200 times faster than the typical household cable service.
“These are local examples of what’s clearly a much larger national trend,” said Patrick Lucey of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute. “Broadband providers have some of the lowest consumer satisfaction of any industry, below even airlines, and people are frustrated by the lack of competition.”
The northern Maryland town of Westminster recently began building its own fiber-optic network, which will be operated by a small start-up called Ting. The start-up also operates the fiber-optic network in Charlottesville, Va.
Chattanooga, Tenn., used its own public electric utility to create its fiber-optic network, which it paid for in part with federal stimulus funds. Industry reports indicate that scores of cities, counties and states across the nation are also taking steps to create their own networks.
Although Fairfax County hasn’t investigated the option, “we wouldn’t rule out any opportunities that present themselves down the road,” said county spokesman Tony Castrilli.
Advocates point out that in addition to providing faster service than cable- or telephone-based networks, fiber-optic networks will be far easier to expand in the future.
The costs of creating a municipal fiber-optic network vary, depending on how it’s done and the areas it covers.
Arlington is spending $51.6 million to build a network connecting all of the county’s government facilities, schools and traffic signals, with about $4.1 million of that cost going to provide access for businesses. About $29.2 million is coming from the federal government.
Alexandria said its network connects nearly 95 municipal and school locations and was the first network of its kind in Virginia. The city currently has only one broadband provider, Comcast. Officials said more than 200 technology companies, with 10,000 employees, are based there.
Alexandria City Council member Justin Wilson said negotiations with Verizon to bring Fios service to the city stagnated, and an attempt to create a citywide WiFi network faltered when the company with which the city was working got out of the municipal WiFi business.
Alexandria, “like every other government, wants Google” to bring its fiber-optic network to the area, Wilson said. The Internet behemoth has provided service to other localities, covering the cost itself but also operating and retaining ownership of the network.
“But more practically, we think there will be some kind of public-private partnership,” Wilson said. “We’re about to do a few hundred thousand dollars worth of sewer work and it’s not that much more money to add fiber conduit.”
Proposals are due in early September.