City Councilman Justin Wilson is well aware of the budgetary challenges facing Alexandria. With very little new revenue available in this year’s budget process, there will be more tough tradeoffs than simple answers.
That doesn’t mean it’s not time to think ahead, Wilson said to the Del Ray Citizens Association this week. And he believes the timing is right to develop a strategy to bring broadband to the city.
“We’re still dealing with severe budget issues and dropping $300 million on a huge broadband system is not a reality,” he said. “But the first thing we need is a plan.”
Wilson said the city has spent several years trying to bring in different options.
In the late 2000s, the city saw a deal with EarthLink to bring free municipal Wi-Fi and competitive service to consumers fall through when the CEO suddenly passed away. Then Verizon made a decision not to build any new FiOS networks as Alexandria was looking for a provider, leaving the city in the lurch.
“I reached out to Verizon a few months ago and they didn’t even want to meet,” Wilson said. “I think that shows where we are. The city is going to have to be more aggressive. I think we’ve reached the end of big infrastructure build and we’re seeing some new models.”
Wilson pointed to Chattanooga, Tenn., as an example of a similar-sized city that retrofitted a public electricity utility to build a $300 million fiber network. The city’s electric company spent a decade installing the cables and it has proven to be a huge economic driver for Tennessee’s fourth-largest city.
“They have the best broadband in world and it’s a huge economic development engine,” Wilson said.
Alexandria is in the process of changing the makeup and responsibilities of its Information Technology Commission with a new emphasis on looking into broadband opportunities. That includes making an inventory of existing and potential conduit assets and exploring public-private partnerships to build broadband infrastructure.
With some significant sewer work planned for Old Town in the coming decades, Wilson mentioned installing conduit with every dig.
“Comcast could be a customer to the city and it could also introduce competition,” Wilson said. “This becomes an asset to the city and one the city can monetize in a real way. … We have a wealthy community and folks would love to sell to us.”
Wilson said there are delicate issues surrounding the installation of municipal broadband, including its impact on existing providers.
“We have a responsibility to our residents to create competition,” Wilson said. “If the private sector doesn’t do it, there are some things we can do.”