The Wash
Conduits like these are being laid underneath the city for its municipal fiber network. One pipe is filled with fiber optic cable, while the other is empty, allowing a franchisee to more easily offer broadband without heavy construction. (Muhammed Al Refai/The Wash)

Alexandria to solicit, grant new broadband franchise, breaking Comcast monopoly

Alexandria City Council passed an ordinance to solicit and grant a broadcast network franchise to provide broadband services to residents by using the city’s right-of-way.

Alexandria City Council voted unanimously on Saturday to solicit and grant a broadcast network franchisee to provide broadband services to residents and businesses. The move brings the city one step closer to breaking the decade-long broadband monopoly held by Comcast.

In August the city began laying a new municipal fiber-optic network to be used by 90 city buildings, including public schools and libraries. While digging and placing the fiber optic wiring, the city decided to lay down a second conduit which could be used by a franchisee in the future.

A map of the city’s planned fiber optic “backbone” was released in August, 2019. (Courtesy of The City of Alexandria)

The foresight for the second conduit came as a low-cost addition that could entice another company to offer broadband services through existing infrastructure to compete with Comcast’s broadband monopoly.

“Mostly people say ‘I wish I had a choice, if I could have a choice maybe this would get better’,” Deputy City Manager Laura Triggs said.

Triggs said cable services have consistently been one of the lowest rated services in the city’s citizen surveys.

Triggs said while the bidders would not be directly competing with Comcast, the city’s only cable provider, they would be able to offer Fiber-to-the-Premises (FTTP) broadband services, giving residents more options.

“In our discussion with industry experts, we’ve determined that there’s really no significant interest in someone coming into the city to provide a cable franchise, that does not seem to be where the industry is interested in going,” Triggs said during a legislative meeting last Tuesday.

Without interest from other broadband companies, the city had to consider a different approach to expanding Alexandria’s broadband options. The ordinance allows a franchisee to use the city’s right-of-way to offer broadband services.

The city’s right-of-way is an underground system where the city runs utilities like electrical and gas lines. In Virginia, municipalities own that right-of-way.

Triggs said while this proposal is not a part of the city’s municipal fiber network, the city is open to working with businesses that would like to use the second conduit to provide fiber optic services.

“Just imagine an underground highway with cords and other things,” Triggs said in an interview. “If we allow access to the right-of-way, you can run fiber-optic cable through the city and allow for access to broadband internet.”

The city has the right to lease its right-of-way to provide services to residents. Triggs introduced a “franchise ordinance process” to the city council in order to achieve this. This would allow the city to solicit proposals for the use of the city’s right-of-way to provide FTTP broadband access to businesses and residents. All bids for the use of the right-of-way are due by Dec. 30.

The city is requiring all proposals to provide a minimum speed of at least 1 gigabit internet connection. The city also wants the broadband to be accessible to affordable housing units, parks and other areas where the public gathers.

“The one that we’re most excited about is the criteria that provides access for every Alexandrian,” Triggs said. “We know that some people have broadband to their home, but it is slow, it is older cables, it is not accessible, you cannot have school and work on some of the broadband that’s in the city.”

Some key terms of the proposal include the use of micro-trenching to minimize disruptions, significant investment of financial resources for construction, standards for 24/7 customer support and a provision for damages or payments for non-completion.

By using microtrenching technology, the vendors could cut down their construction costs significantly by digging less deep into the ground, Triggs said.

“It’s expensive to dig here. If you spend any time in Old Town, it’s a 200-year-old city and so getting underground to connect things is expensive,” Triggs said.

The new broadband franchisee would be required to provide a construction plan, a communication plan and a construction timeline. (Muhammed Al Refai/The Wash)

The City Council will review the proposals at a legislative meeting on Jan. 11, 2022, then vote to allow the city to negotiate the terms of the agreement.

“This is an important step for the city in our ongoing process to expand broadband offerings,” Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson said.

Muhammed Al Refai

Muhammed is a graduate student at American University, reporting on community news for the city of Alexandria, Virginia.

He is a technical communicator who enjoys breaking down scientific topics into digestible, engaging chunks for people to enjoy and understand.

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