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Alexandria Councilman Digs into Broadband

Alexandria Councilman Justin Wilson discusses building a long-term broadband plan for the city.

Alexandria Councilman Justin Wilson speaks to the Del Ray Citizens Association. (Photo credit: Drew Hansen)
Alexandria Councilman Justin Wilson speaks to the Del Ray Citizens Association. (Photo credit: Drew Hansen)

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.”

David L. December 15, 2013 at 06:04 PM
Thank you, Councilman Wilson. Alexandria needs better Internet access; it's really second class right now. The future may in fact not lie in wire or cable but in wireless and wifi solutions. Verizon has pulled back from expanding FIOS in order to put its money into wireless, and AT&T seems to be moving in that direction as well. But the demand for dramatically increased Internet speeds, on the order found in Chattanooga and in the Google test locations, has not yet emerged. It's also a chicken and an egg problem; do we build the Internet roads, and the traffic will fill them, or do we wait for the traffic to build up before we build?
Pierre L'Enfant December 15, 2013 at 06:34 PM
You can thank the city council's of the past to be so in the pocket of Comcast for the mess where we are with broadband. There was plenty of opportunities for the city to get multiple providers into the city and some reason ($$ in there own pockets) the city council blocked it every time.
matt tallmerq December 16, 2013 at 08:38 AM
Pierre: I agree 100%. Have even gotten into it w Councilman Wilson over the same argument.
BPBEACH December 16, 2013 at 09:06 AM
Thank you Justin! I hope you are successful in advancing this idea to reality... it is a service long overdue.
Mark Mueller December 16, 2013 at 11:46 AM
If I am not mistaken, doesn't every single jurisdiction in the DC area have FIOS - EXCEPT- Alexandria? Why is that exactly? Beyond Wilson phoning Verizon (I called them about my bill too), doesn't it make sense to reexamine working with Verizon before spending $300M we don't have? FYI, the City's last update regarding Verizon Fios was from March of 2012 (almost two years ago!!). See here: http://alexandriava.gov/FIOS
RJ December 16, 2013 at 11:56 AM
Mark, I think you forgot the sentence from the article that read: “I reached out to Verizon a few months ago and they didn’t even want to meet.”
Mark Mueller December 16, 2013 at 12:20 PM
a lone member of Council reaching out to "Verizon" falls way short of an official/sanctioned City effort to re-engage with them. So I did see that sentence, thanks.
tom blackwood December 16, 2013 at 01:32 PM
Verizon is not expanding into new markets for FIOS. Here is a recent comment from their CEO: Lowell McAdam, CEO and chairman of Verizon (NYSE: VZ), put another nail into the FiOS expansion idea, saying at an investor conference on Monday that the carrier will continue to focus on expanding service availability in existing markets. "The point for us is that there might be a couple of things on the fringe going in and digging up yards and deploying fiber in a lot of new markets isn't in the cards," McAdam said during the UBS 41st Annual Global Media & Communications Conference. "More and more things are going mobile and I think there are more opportunities to partner out of market with companies that are there vs. us going in and deploying FiOS." Read more: Verizon's McAdam: New FiOS markets are not in the cards - FierceTelecom http://www.fiercetelecom.com/story/verizons-mcadam-new-fios-markets-are-not-cards/2013-12-09#ixzz2nfD5DGzh Subscribe at FierceTelecom
Justin Wilson December 16, 2013 at 03:28 PM
Mr. Mueller--Thanks for the interest in this effort. As Tom Blackwood noted, this was a national decision that Verizon made and unfortunately the City got stuck at the wrong end (along with several other communities around the nation). After some negotiation in 2009/2010, the City had issued a franchise to Verizon to deploy in Alexandria, but by the time that process concluded, Verizon had made the strategic shift. While we remain hopeful that Verizon will change their mind, based on what they have briefed to the investor community of late, it seems unlikely. Here's some additional background on this: http://www.alexandriava.gov/uploadedFiles/citizen/info/verizon030910.pdf http://www.bizjournals.com/washington/stories/2010/03/08/daily33.html?page=all http://www.dslreports.com/shownews/Verizon-Again-Confirms-FiOS-Expansion-is-Over-118949 http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303410404575151773432729614 Let me know if you have any questions!
Old Towner December 16, 2013 at 10:15 PM
Justin, I appreciate your efforts, but what about other local alternatives, like Cox or RCN? I know Cox is nothing special and RCN is mostly just in the district, but by even getting a single other broadband (non-DSL) competitor in Alexandria, you're one step closer to victory. As it is, Comcast has 145K residents over a barrel and they know it. They're slowly rolling out data caps of 250-350GB/month via trial runs in other communities as we speak, and it's only a matter of time before it gets here. Alexandria has a fairly well educated population and I'm assuming many of them have made the decision (like me) to ditch cable TV all together and just rely on streaming content. Comcast understands the threat to their business model and will force people to resubscribe to cable because their bandwidth cap will not allow multiple person households the flexibility to use streaming services. Most people on this side of the river don't even know about RCN, maybe you should give them a ring? Given the density of the eastern portion of Alexandria, they could probably make a decent return by setting up their services (if it were that easy).
Justin Wilson December 16, 2013 at 10:31 PM
Old Towner: Agree completely! This effort is provider-agnostic. We want competition, and we want new investment in Broadband infrastructure. The purpose of the Plan is to position the City to make that happen. Right now, Cox or RCN would need franchise agreements to deploy in Alexandria, and they have not sought that. I imagine we would be excited if they did. The Council actually did have a discussion recently about Cox, because they applied to build conduit in the City to serve a business customer of theirs. We're hoping we can broaden their vision for the City: https://alexandria.legistar.com/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=1482196&GUID=CF08BA71-C5CD-4E9F-97DB-26FB8964B1FB&Options=&Search= (Full disclosure, about 16 years ago, I worked for a company that evolved into RCN)
Old Towner December 18, 2013 at 02:03 PM
Justin, Was not aware of your previous involvement with RCN. I don't pretend to know enough about the industry to know what a franchise agreement entails, but maybe with your familiarity you could help facilitate something? What do they need from us and what would we need from them to make something like that happen? Votes, funding, contracts? If you publicize it, I guarantee the support will come.
Justin Wilson December 19, 2013 at 06:39 AM
Old Towner: They just need financing. Deploying a new franchise in Alexandria (or anywhere) requires quite a bit of capital--which has always been the barrier to entry.
Old Towner December 19, 2013 at 09:31 AM
Thanks for the info Justin
Rob Reeve February 08, 2014 at 02:56 PM
Did anyone catch the Fresh Air episode on this? It was an interview Susan Crawford author of "Captive Audience". Very valid points that came through and something that really needs to be looked at thoroughly. If private firms are not interested in investing in Alexandria, then we should make the investment in ourselves and our city. For reference see: http://www.wbur.org/npr/272480919/when-it-comes-to-high-speed-internet-u-s-falling-way-behind

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