$4.1 Million Fiber Network Sits In the Dark

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In February 2015, Arlington officials spent $4.1 million to build a 10-mile fiber optic “ConnectArlington” network, aimed at giving local businesses cheaper access to higher-speed internet by offering an alternative to the large ISPs; however, since then, the fiber has gone almost totally unused, reported ARLnow.

Though the county is barred by state law from offering internet service itself, officials envisioned smaller ISPs working with local tech firms to “light” the fiber, providing county businesses with a new option to access the internet at fast speeds. According to a committee of broadband experts, the program design scared off businesses interested in leasing the fiber.

Eight months ago, the committee presented a report recommending an extensive overhaul of the program’s design. County officials say they’re already working to heed some of the committee’s recommendations, but it remains an open question as to how the county will work to address the problems with ConnectArlington. The network costs hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to maintain, reported ARLnow.

“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.”

Per the broadband committee’s report, the network’s design and the county’s conditions for leasing out the fiber were flawed. Officials designed it as “middle mile” service, meaning it runs along major roadways but didn’t initially connect to the buildings along the corridors.

“To be useful, the network must be complete,” the report argues. “‘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.”

For smaller ISPs, the lack of connections [laterals] to large office buildings, plus the terms of the 72-page license agreement officials asked companies to sign to use the fiber were identified as “a huge barrier to entry.” Mary Crannell, a member of the broadband committee and the head of a local technology consulting firm, said: “It wasn’t written in a digital context. It used the context of other negotiations, not the digital world.”

The agreement also allows the county to remove ISPs from the network with just one year’s worth of notice, complicating any efforts by an ISP to sign customers to long-term deals, reported ARLnow. That sort of risk-averse position by county officials meant that even businesses that found an ISP willing to connect to the dark fiber faced issues.

Officials argue that everything from restrictive state laws to the county’s obligation to protect tax dollars has 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.”

According to Crannell, the county’s problems demonstrate a clear need for a “different mindset” when it comes to managing the program.

Belcher added, “There’s been a lot of movement based on the report.” He hopes that the county’s leadership will decide to recommit to the program. “They have the makings of something really interesting there,” Rozycki said. “They just need the right people and partners to make it work.”  Comments? Email Us.  

March 7, 2019        

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