Fiber Optic ConnectArlington Moving Forward in Virginia

Date: 28 Jun 2012 | posted in: MuniNetworks | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Arlington County, Virginia is taking advantage of a series of planned projects to create their own fiber optic network, ConnectArlington. The County is moving into phase II of its three part plan to improve connectivity with a publicly owned fiber network.

Some creative thinking and inter-agency collaboration seem to be the keys to success in Arlington. Both the County and the Arlington Public Schools will own the new asset. Additionally, the network will improve the County Public Safety network. Back in March, Tanya Roscola reported on the planing and benefits of the ConnectArlington in Government Technology.

Arlington County's cable franchise agreement with Comcast is up for renewal in 2013. As part of that agreement, the schools and county facilities have been connected to each other at no cost to the County. Even though there are still active negotiations, the ConnectArlington website notes that the outcome is uncertain. The County does not know if the new agreement will include the same arrangement. Local leaders are not waiting to find out, citing need in the community and recent opportunities that reduce installation costs. 

Other communities, from Palo Alto in California to Martin County in Florida, have found Comcast pushing unreasonable prices for services in franchise negotiations. Smart communities have invested in their own networks rather than continue depending on Comcast.

Like schools all around the country, Arlington increasingly relies on high-capacity networks for day-to-day functions both in and out of the classroom. Digital textbooks, tablets, and online testing enhance the educational adventure, but require more and more bandwidth and connectivity. From the article:

Through ConnectArlington, Arlington Public Schools will be able to take advantage of Internet2 for distance learning. At no cost, students will be able to communicate with teachers and access electronic textbooks and online courses from wireless hot spots.

The County wants to use the network to provide continuity and expansion of its essential telecommunications services. Additionally, according the the County's Spring 2010 Telecommunications Overview (check out the PDF - there are some informative maps here), the County and the School District want to reduce the uncertainty of continued dependence on Comcast.


Three projects, all happening within a relatively short period of time, came together to solidify the planning and enthusiasm for ConnectArlington. 

1) Upgrades to the County's Intelligent Traffic System (ITS), funded with a federal grant, will involve significant digging up of streets to make way for new conduit and fiber. The ITS construction provides an opportunity for ConnectArlington to install additional conduit for expanding the fiber network. ITS uses fiber optic cables to allow real time monitoring and control of intersections for immediate traffic control. Additionally, the fiber allows Emergency Vehicle Preemption technology (EVP). Thirty-one additional intersections will be added to the network and outfit with EVP. From a County Press Release:

"Emergency vehicle preemption technology is critical to saving lives by giving responders safe, speedy passage through intersections and cutting precious minutes off the time it takes to get patients to life-saving care at a hospital,” said Chief James Schwartz of the Arlington County Fire Department.

EVP gives emergency vehicles the right-of-way at signaled intersections with an automatic green light. The emergency responder is able to safely navigate the intersection, while drivers and pedestrians are clearly directed to cede the right-of-way via the traffic signals.

2) A public bond, dedicated to replacing the current microwave emergency system, will  connect six public safety radio towers with a new fiber backbone. ConnectArlington will also lay fiber along that route. From the Roscola story:

Arlington Logo

When fiber goes through the county's approximately 168 traffic signals, these signals will become routers on the network. That will allow police and fire personnel who set up command villages for an event to connect to the network through traffic signals.

They'll be able to access broadband and wireless for video, audio and data connectivity during events including the Marine Corp Marathon and ceremonies at the Pentagon.

3) Lastly, local electric provider Dominion Power will be upgrading its power grid. The County will co-locate dark fiber with Dominion's fiber, saving even more on installation.

ConnectArlington will be a series of fiber optic rings that overlap in strategic circles to provide paths that avoid any single failure points. Arlington's present system is a patchwork of County-owned facilities, lines leased from commercial providers, and Comcast's fiber-optic network, is a "star" or "spoke and hub" topology. With the new lay out, any failure will be remedied with data traffic reroute, providing redundancy.

While more and more communities are beginning to see the value of a publicly owned fiber optic network, patience is a must, as noted in the Roscola article:

"It's going to take time to realize the cost benefit out of this," said Belcher, who also directs the county's Department of Technology Services. "You're going to have to invest a lot of money that could go elsewhere. But you're putting it here because you see a value to be achieved, and that's significant."

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Lisa Gonzalez

Lisa Gonzalez researched and reported on telecommunications and municipal networks' impact on life at the local level. Lisa also wrote for and produced ILSR's Broadband Bits podcast.