Walking the Last Mile: Can D.C.’s New Internet Service Actually Connect the Masses?
Last week, Mayor Vince Gray announced the connection of the nation's first 100-gigabit municipal fiber network, called DC-CAN. With the backbone funded by a federal stimulus grant, it's a huge step forward for internet connections in government facilities like recreation centers and police stations. It's also a very good deal for big non-profits like Bread for the City and So Others Might Eat, which need strong, reliable, secure connections—and can afford the $470 per month baseline cost.
One of the system's big selling points, though, was that it would allow entrepreneurs a chance to build out the "last mile" connection from that fiber backbone into homes and small businesses in underserved areas, since the D.C. government is prohibited by law from doing so itself. In addition, because the routers D.C. is using aren't "meshable," it's harder for the institutions that have hooked into the network to easily spread their wireless signal over long distances (like what's going on in Bloomingdale, which has the potential to cover a much larger area).
That part, it seems, isn't moving very quickly. Right now, DC-CAN is offering its "backhaul" at prices that aren't significantly less than commercial providers like Comcast and Verizon already offer. Martha Huizenga, of Capitol Hill-based internet service provider D.C. Access, says it's not worth her while to work with DC-CAN.
"In the future we hope to, but the pricing we received initially was not as good as the pricing we have with our current vendors," she says. “If you're not drastically less expensive than a big telecom company, then why would I go with you over them? I guess I really want to see a big price differential, because that's what they keep talking about.”
The Office of the Chief Technology Officer's Jack Burbridge says that their service isn't cheaper because it's better: More reliable and secure, with guaranteed service, and discounts if you don't use the full bandwidth. Which is great if you're someone who needs to handle things like medical records, but not such a bargain if you just need basic access.
Burbridge says that OCTO is in discussions with the private sector to start building out the last mile to consumers, but wouldn't name the companies (although he says Comcast and Verizon are among them). To entice them into underserved areas, OCTO will be putting together a package of incentives that will offer the service at lower rates in wards 5, 7, and 8—which will hopefully bring it within reach of the smaller, local businesses that can then bring internet to their neighbors (it's been done successfully elsewhere).
At the moment, though, Comcast is already offering very cheap internet to low-income families with kids in D.C. through a program arranged as a consequence of its merger with NBC. That's great, but right now it doesn't do much to encourage investment in longer-term connections through DC-CAN. The Comcast program expires after three years. After that, it's likely that families will let their subscriptions lapse, or just buy what they're used to, at market rate.
So, high hopes for D.C.'s municipal wireless internet infrastructure. Big improvements necessary to make it live up to its potential.