Small Cities Use Fiber Infrastructure to Decrease Digital Divide

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Throughout June, NLC is celebrating America’s forward-thinking small cities and towns with #SmallCitiesMonth. This is a guest post by Lisa Gonzalez, senior telecommunications researcher at The Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Significant segments of Americans still struggle to obtain some form of broadband Internet access and even more don’t have a choice of high-quality Internet service. Local communities are considering ways to expand digital inclusion for their citizens and taking action — as those with publicly owned networks have powerful tools for change.

Two diverse American communities — Wilson, North Carolina, and Arlington County, Virginia — are using fiber, ingenuity, and collaboration to tackle their digital divide issues.

The home of Greenlight, a municipal Fiber-to-the-Home network, Wilson, North Carolina, has been serving the community with fast, affordable, reliable connectivity since 2008. The city built its own citywide fiber optic network with money from private investors that are being repaid by revenue from the network.

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In 2017, Wilson started a “pay as you go” Internet access, in part to provide better service for folks who might be facing financial difficulties. They considered the reality that in households where funds are limited, the cost of Internet access may occasionally be replaced by a more urgent need. If, for example, a family needs to pay for car repairs or if a wage earner becomes ill and wages fall temporarily, other expenses may take precedence.

To complicate matters, a family may end service, but reconnecting requires an installation fee from many providers. Additionally, closing and reopening accounts may have negative impact on one’s credit history and, if one already has less than stellar credit, they may have trouble obtaining service from traditional ISPs.

Residents who take advantage of Greenlight’s program first deposit and then maintain a minimum balance in their account. The funds in the account are then applied to his or her Internet fees. If the household experiences difficult financial times, the subscriber lets the account draw down and, although Internet access is not provided, the account is “inactive” rather than “cancelled”. Subscribers do not experience negative credit implications or collections actions. When they’re able to add to the balance, Internet access resumes.

Meanwhile, the ConnectArlington fiber optic network in Arlington, Virginia, was originally deployed to improve public safety near the nation’s capital, provide better connectivity for institutions, and to eventually serve local businesses. Now, the community plans to use its fiber infrastructure to bring high-quality Internet access to residents at a local affordable housing complex.

ConnectArlington officials began their project with a mind to public safety just as they did when they first developed the network back in 2015. First responders that answered calls in one of the county’s affordable housing complexes, Arlington Mill Residences, needed better access to communications within the facility. They installed the necessary equipment, which they’re now leveraging for residents and the community center.

ConnectArlington worked with the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing (APAH) to use the infrastructure at the facility to allow residents to use fixed wireless Internet access throughout the building in their homes. APAH took advantage of $95,000 of Tax Increment Financing (TIF) that had been approved for the neighborhood in the past but had yet to be allocated to a project. The funding will cover the cost of Internet service, hardware and software, maintenance, and dark fiber lease fees.

APAH will choose an Internet provider that will lease dark fiber from ConnectArlington. The ISP will light the fiber and use it to provide high-speed bandwidth to the Arlington Mills apartment building. Another company working with APAH will install and maintain wireless access points within the building, which will allow residents access to Wi-Fi at no charge. Community officials expect to launch the service later this year.

For more on these programs and on the Greenlight and ConnectArlington networks, listen to episodes 291 and 293 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Visit MuniNetworks.org for resources on municipal networks, cooperatives, and other telecommunications matters.

0.jpgAbout the Author: Lisa Gonzalez is a senior telecommunications researcher at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative, and serves as writer and editor at Muninetworks.org.