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?

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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.”

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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.”

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