City to examine new broadband Internet options

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City to examine new broadband Internet options
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By Chris Teale (File photo)

Alexandria’s relationship with broadband Internet has had something of a checkered history. But now city officials hope to improve matters for businesses, city departments and residents with the issuing of a Request for Information asking the private sector for ideas.

Currently, the city’s public institutions are connected by the internal network “I-Net,” the first of its kind in Virginia and used by 95 facilities. One broadband provider — Comcast — serves most residents and businesses, and officials say the new effort will allow them to learn about other options and help inform decisions about public or private initiatives to fit Alexandria’s needs. The deadline to send information is September 3.

“Alexandria has long been a leader in local government technology, and home to thousands of residents and businesses that rely on access to broadband Internet,” said Mayor Bill Euille in a statement. “This RFI is an opportunity for the market — and anyone else — to help give us ideas about how to begin an exciting new chapter in municipal and community broadband in Alexandria.”

An RFI is an open-ended request for plans, as opposed to the traditional Request for Proposals, for which the scope is already determined by the issuer. It gives respondents more flexibility and allows them to make more innovative suggestions.

“We welcome the response of incumbent service providers, as well as competitive providers, nonprofit organizations, public cooperatives and entities that are not traditional Internet service providers, but are interested in offering service under innovative business models (application providers, as an example),” the RFI reads. “Non-traditional providers may respond as part of a partnership with a network service provider, or may provide a separate response outlining their approach.”

City Councilor Justin Wilson, who is a member of the city’s commission on information technology, said broadband connectivity has become a very important issue across the city.

“I have business owners who I will talk to who will send their employees home to other jurisdictions to transfer files for the company because they have better broadband at home than they do in the city of Alexandria, which is just crazy,” he said. “It’s an economic development issue for us, it’s an issue for our residents and it’s really getting to a point where broadband infrastructure is as basic as roads and streets and bridges as far as a building block of a community.”

Perhaps the biggest impact could be the expansion of Internet and cable choices beyond Comcast, which currently holds the franchise for those services in much of the city. Wilson says more choice would force service providers to improve their offerings, and he welcomes the competition.

“One of the common emails I get is, ‘End the monopoly that Comcast has on cable. Why do they have a monopoly? You should not give them a monopoly,’” he said “I tell them they don’t have a monopoly. There are no monopolies. They have a franchise just like anybody else can seek a franchise. Tomorrow, another company could come in and seek a franchise and with open arms we would welcome them to the city of Alexandria.”

Wilson recalled the city’s negotiations with Verizon to install FiOS, which was scuttled after a national decision by the company to stop building new deployments of its fiber optic network, and then subsequent talks with EarthLink, which were aborted in part because the company’s CEO died from a heart attack. In light of those events, Wilson said he circulated a memo in 2013 calling for the city to have a broadband plan.

One issue that will likely present itself is the need to dig up city streets to install cables underground. But Wilson pointed to what he called a “dig once” policy adopted around the country as a way around it. With the city set for massive upgrades in its sewer system, he said that installing broadband service underground at the same time could prevent streets and pavements being under construction for too long.

“Once you’re underground, it’s incrementally not much more expensive to put fiber conduit down there while you’re there, whereas it might be really expensive to dig up the city just to put fiber conduit in,” he said. “If you’re already digging up for another reason, take advantage of that.”

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