Housing Complex

Fiber-Optical Illusion

Last week, Mayor Vince Gray stopped by the Montana Terrace housing development to celebrate a milestone in a project that he tweeted was “helping to bridge the digital divide.” The nonprofit One Economy Corporation had recently finished wiring eight D.C. low-income housing developments—totaling 1,435 units—with high-speed Internet connections, using the Internet service provider Clear. According to One Economy President David Saunier, the impact’s already been measurable: On the day we talked, 1,127 unique devices connected to the new Internet in these buildings.

It’s a noteworthy accomplishment: As jobs and school increasingly require online applications, it’s getting harder for residents who can’t afford a connection to keep up. But it’s also noteworthy because of what’s going on around it. Crisscrossing the District are powerful fiber-optic cables, running below the ground in the center of the city and through the air farther out, that comprise what is by some measures the most powerful municipal broadband network in the country. Yet One Economy didn’t tap into it, and neither do many D.C. residents. (Saunier says One Economy selected Comcast over D.C.’s network through a competitive bid process, before later switching to Clear, with which it negotiated a special deal.) In fact, most Washingtonians have no idea that their city has this tremendous asset, and that’s because most Washingtonians are unable to take advantage of it.

In 2010, the federal government provided the District with a $17.4 million grant through the stimulus act, which the city government supplemented with $7.5 million in matching funds, to build out the D.C. Community Access Network (DC-CAN), the country’s first 100-gigabit municipal fiber network—in other words, the most powerful city-run Internet infrastructure in America. The idea was to help bring the city’s existing fiber network, DC-NET, to underserved areas. That doesn’t mean simply blasting a public Wi-Fi signal at Congress Heights, though. The city isn’t allowed to be a so-called last-mile provider, bringing the Internet directly to consumers, but rather a middle-mile network that Internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon, as well as “community anchor institutions,” can use to bring a powerful Web connection to the masses.

The grant period ends in June, raising two questions. First, how did the city do in fulfilling the terms of the grant? And more important: What good is our superlative network if it’s not bringing high-speed Internet access to ordinary D.C. residents?

***

On the first question, city officials argue that they’ve actually done pretty well. The goal set by the grant was to connect 291 community anchor institutions, which include libraries, schools, health-care providers, and police and fire stations. With two months to go before the grant expires, they’ve connected 230, including 106 in the three underserved wards they’ve targeted, wards 5, 7, and 8. (Of those 230, 68 are upgrades to existing, but slower, DC-NET connections.) Those institutions provide Wi-Fi to people within a 300-foot radius of the buildings, though officials say in practice the signal can extend up to 600 feet.

“We understand that it’s not going to be ubiquitous coverage throughout the District,” says Anil Sharma, director of operations for DC-NET and part of the DC-CAN project team. “But at 291 locations, they have access to the Internet at literally no cost to them.”

So far, so good. But community broadband activists are frustrated that this incredibly powerful resource isn’t doing more to provide Internet access to homes and neighborhoods across the city.

“I don’t want to pretend like they’re not working hard,” says Greg Bloom, who started organizing community Wi-Fi networks through the Broadband Bridge initiative in 2010. “The question is, what are they working hard toward? The concept that this is a publicly funded resource that should directly benefit D.C. residents—that should be self-evident but it’s not how it’s played out.”

Bloom says that when he first started meeting with the Office of the Chief Technology Officer in 2010, officials there told him that connected community anchor institutions could do with their bandwidth what they wanted, including “meshing” with nearby routers to provide free Wi-Fi to a broader radius, but then backtracked and said these institutions couldn’t share their bandwidth at all. Sharma says security regulations prevent DC-NET from allowing meshing.

A second issue is cost. Although Sharma says the price of DC-CAN to community anchor institutions is often lower than what they were previously paying for a weaker and less reliable T1 connection—organizations featured on the DC-CAN website testify to more powerful Internet for the same price or less than they paid for previous service—it’s still a hefty $470/month at the lowest. Jessie Posilkin of Bread for the City, who’s working to bring Internet access to poor Washingtonians, compares that figure to the $19.99 a month the town of Urbana-Champaign, Ill., is offering through a similar grant that permits last-mile service to residents. The Urbana-Champaign connection isn’t as speedy, reliable, or secure as D.C.’s public safety-grade network, but Posilkin still wishes the District’s powerful network could be made available at a lower cost than $470 a month, even at the expense of high specs.

“There should be some sort of happy medium number in there,” says Posilkin. “That number to me says something is wrong.”

DC-NET’s Jack Burbridge says that’s not a fair comparison, given the vastly different qualities and functions of the networks. The grant guidelines require DC-CAN to be sustainable over time, he says, so DC-NET has to cover its costs. “Some smaller community anchor institutions say, ‘I can’t justify it in my budget. It’s too much,’” Burbridge says of the cost of DC-CAN. “To which we say, ‘We’d love to be able to offer you a competitive solution at this time, but if we were to do that, we’d be losing money hand over fist.’”

Martha Huizenga of D.C. Access, a Capitol Hill–based Internet service provider that’s working with DC-NET to become one of the last-mile providers, says DC-CAN is “moving a little slower” and “a little more expensive” than she anticipated, but that she holds out hope for a solution that will allow independent providers like hers to bring competitively priced service to underserved wards. (Comcast and other providers currently offer discounted connections to certain low-income residents, but that program will expire next year.)

“I understand the frustration from the community folks, but if they were on the inside of it, I think they’d realize this isn’t something you just do,” she says. “It doesn’t happen overnight.”

***

The long-term dream scenario, of course, would be free public Internet for all residents, provided by the city to people’s homes or blasted out across D.C. via Wi-Fi. But it’s unlikely that we’ll see last-mile service directly from the District. That’s because the city’s franchise agreements with Internet service providers like Verizon and Comcast prohibit the District from competing with these companies by offering its own service.

“The intent was never to take the business away from Verizon or Comcast,” says Sharma. “Our target audience always was community anchor institutions.”

Bloom still thinks there ought to be a way for the city to help promote broader access to DC-CAN, such as allowing nonprofit organizations located near one another to band together to form their own Internet service provider that could offer last-mile services. But he says city officials have been evasive when he’s brought up this and similar proposals, leaving Bloom to question whether the Gray administration is taking the right approach to its goals of becoming the largest tech center on the East Coast and implementing city-wide Wi-Fi.

“It’s kind of maddening to see tax breaks getting given out to fucking LivingSocial while they’re sitting on a 21st-century resource,” complains Bloom. “They want to talk about making D.C. a tech capital? Make it easier to make broadband accessible to everyone.”

The city appears to be starting a new effort to figure out how to make DC-CAN work better for communities. According to Posilkin, Jen Boss, who leads tech efforts at the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, reached out to Bread for the City and set up a meeting last week. It’s one of several meetings, Posilkin says, that DMPED has begun having with community organizations “to figure out how to do what they promised to do.”

“She was really trying figure out what the opportunity really is and how it can happen,” Posilkin says of Boss. “She said, ‘I see we have the big tube and we have a lot of Internet, but how do we get it to citizens, and what would that actually look like?’”

DMPED spokeswoman Chanda Washington declined to comment on this outreach, saying only, “It’s much too early to talk about it.” And really, it isn’t DMPED’s job to build out the city’s broadband network. But asking the right questions is a good start, and it could put pressure on OCTO to come up with some answers.

“My sense is that the mayor’s office wanted to pull down some of the barriers that had been put up before,” says Posilkin. “If their intentions are genuine that they want to use this opportunity, well, even after the grant ends in June, the bandwidth is still there and the fiber is still there. So there’s an opportunity to make this happen.”

Comments

  1. #1

    Unlike freeloaders wanting free hookups, I would pay for optical fiber. Look deeper into why most of DC does not have it.

  2. #2

    I do understand why commercial providers would want to curb DC's ability to offer expand this service and make it more accessible. What I don't understand is why DC agreed to these provisions.

  3. #3

    No fiber is available in my neighborhood in nw and the no compete agreement gives the big guys no incentive to invest in the infrastructure. Basically screwed twice. "One-City" seems to have lots of drawbridges in the "up" position, and closed gates. There's no map however to show you where they are, you just run into them without warning.

    Re: NE John May 1st, 2013 9:55 pm
    "Unlike freeloaders wanting free hookups"

    Why so harsh and disrespecting? First off we all paid for this w/our taxes, fed and dc.
    Second, that you can't get something you need or want should give you some perspective on what it must be like to have no high-speed connections available to you, or worse no access at all.

  4. #4

    As a resident I see no benefit from this. While I fully support and want muni owned layer 1 or layer 2 provider, this isn't it. For all intensive purposes it's a private government MAN.

    I had to get 305/65 residential fiber based metro ethernet from Comcast as FiOS isn't available to me. It's costing me a mint (320/mo), but I need it for work (move lots of a large VMs around). If DC really wants to attract residents and become a tech hub, they need gigabit.

    The hotspots are also a freaking joke. DC blocks everything but port 80 and 443. They're slow, and don't support IPv6.

    Look at Comcast's hotspot map, way more hotspots than DC http://hotspots.wifi.comcast.com. I'm sure Verizon will deploy something similar soon.

    So where did all this grant money go? To deploy a bunch of DWDM gear that isn't being used to its capacity.

  5. Rock Master Scott
    #5

    " For all intensive purposes..."
    Seriously? Is this a joke?
    Please tell us, what is so intense about the purpose of this network?

  6. #6

    Why do these agreements with Verizon and Comcast always get stated as if they are immutable. There should be time limits and termination clauses. We the taxpayers paid for this and it should be made available to other service providers at prices that allow them to provide competition to Verizon and Comcast. The barrier it is claimed is the high price of start up. The start up costs have been paid in putting in all that fiber.

  7. #7

    Until governments force some kind of genuine competition, or start building municpal systems, we'll be at the mercy of the telecoms. Consumers in other countries get better service and pay far lower rates, and it's because their governments do more than award near-monopoly franchises to giant telecoms.
    One common practice is to force telecoms to make their infrastructure available to other companies. (Unbundling? I forget the official name for the practice.) This drives prices way down, and many companies that start out this way ultimately make their own infrastructure investments.

  8. #8

    @Scott - Sorry about the typo. intents and*.

  9. #9

    The agreements can be amended any time they come up for renewal, or really any time the city thinks it's in their best interest.

    The reason the city agrees to these terms is so that Gray can call up Comcast (or verizon) on a whim and get a $10k check made to the charity of his choice.

    http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2009-11-18/news/36834573_1_campaign-finance-gray-audit-reports

    You're paying for the corruption and there's nothing you can do about it, suckers.

    This is how DC works. Put up unnecessary and unworkable regulations so that you have to come to one of the council members for permission to waive the requirement (DCRA) or pay enough money to get your competitors locked out (CBE's).

  10. #10

    ".... The long-term dream scenario, of course, would be free public Internet for all residents, provided by the city to people’s homes or blasted out across D.C. via Wi-Fi...."

    Public internet wouldn't even have to be free. Many people would be happy to pay a reasonable no-contract fee to be free of Comcast, Verizon, etc., or just to use their own laptops away from home, and subsidies or fee waivers could be provided to low-income households. At some point we need to realize that universally available wi-fi is a social good, worth paying for with tax dollars. We all benefit when children have greater access to education sources and adults have greater access to information and employment opportunities.

  11. #11

    Any latest on this? I still have no FIOS in my area and I can't get any info from OCT and Verizon estimate time FIOS will be available -- they have no clue if the fibers were installed in my area (I have a feeling they are).

  12. #12

    The DC Office of Cable Television negotiated a franchise agreement with Verizon that defers implementation of fiber optic communications until 2018.

    I live within sight of the Capitol of the friggin' free world and I can't get fiber optic service at any price. What a friggin' joke.

  13. #13

    Way back during NETday (middle to late 90's) it was announced that a certain telco accounted a deal to hook up every library and School to an OC3 ring that they built. Those of us from telco backgrounds we're flabbergasted to show up at schools to wire them only to find POT and no way whatsoever to connect to this infrastructure. http://clinton4.nara.gov/WH/New/NetDay/tlc.html

    Glad to know the game of bait and switch is still alive. However I would have hoped that over the nearly last two decades we've not been able to elect one member of our Council that understands a lick of technology.

  14. #14

    This, of course, is another demonstration project by DC to keep certian people happy-mostly the contractors. I'm sure if you divide the total in millions of dollars by the user and/or gigabyte it is probably the most expensive interent service in the free world.

    It's kind of like building and operating a trolley to nowhere when the same budget could have bought many new busses to add to a canibalized fleet.

    I just wish we had investigative reporters who would ask dollars and cents questions like: How much does this cost per person? And: If the private companies have no reason to put fiber optic lines in our third world inferastructure, why can't we citizens have access to this particular boondoggle?

    Of course, expecting DC to fix this is a little like sampling new upholstery for the Titanic. I only say this in the public interest.

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