Alexandria, Virginia Moves Forward with I-Net, Looks to Kick Comcast to the Curb

While it’s been somewhat of a rarity in larger metropolitan areas, the city of Alexandria, Virginia (pop. 158,000) is hoping to bring residents fast, reliable Internet access by building out an institutional network (I-Net) in the state’s seventh largest city.

Construction of the I-Net, which is expected to be completed by February 2025, will connect the city’s schools, public safety buildings and other facilities, and lay the foundation for a city-wide fiber-to-the-home network.

Instead of waiting for Comcast to give residents the service they need, in August the city broke ground on the project that was long in the works. The main aim is to connect government facilities with the hope that the city will lease out the conduit to a private Internet Service Provider (ISP) as a way to incent more broadband competition.

According to the city’s broadband webpage: the “Municipal Fiber project will create potential partnership opportunities to expand consumer choice and increase available speeds for broadband services.” If the city moves forward with a public-private partnership, it could make the municipal network one of the largest in the country.  

City officials have created a Request for Proposals (RFP) process, in which they will be looking for ISPs that have a track record of connecting other communities in the state. The winning bidder would then be given a contract to build a fiber network that best serves the public interest, working closely with the city in deploying network infrastructure.

Broadband In the Works

Virginia is one of the 17 states that puts restrictions on municipal networks, mandating that “municipal networks impute private sector costs, pay additional taxes, set excessively high prices, and/or refrain from subsidizing affordable service, in the name of protecting private ‘competition.’” But that hasn’t stopped city officials from finding solutions to the lack of high-speed connectivity in the community.

The most recent development in Alexandria is the result of a culmination of years of strategizing.

In 2009, the city was poised to be part of Verizon’s nationwide FiOS buildout. But Verizon ended up pulling out of Alexandria the following year. 

Well aware of residents' frustrations with the current broadband options, city officials decided to explore a potential municipal broadband option. In 2013, the city started assessing the feasibility of a fiber optic network and dabbling with the idea of a public-private partnership. But at the time the city was dealing with financial constraints that made the city council wary of committing to a municipal network without a clear plan. 

Then councilmember, now Mayor Justin Wilson, has been working on making this a priority for the city for nearly a decade. 

“Up until now, I think the city, as it relates to broadband, has been very passive and waiting for the private sector to come to us,” Wilson said at a broadband strategy meeting in 2013.

The Del Rey Patch covered a citizen’s association meeting where Wilson talked about seizing the opportunity to install conduit when the city will inevitably have to upgrade its sewer system.

The city issued an RFP in 2015 to see if there were ISPs interested in working with the city on what was projected to be an $8 million endeavor (funded through the city’s capital budget and the FCC’s E-rate Program). It received 10 responses from private ISPs, and in 2019, released an Invitation to Bid (ITB). Ultimately, however, as reported by Alexandria Living Magazine, the city “canceled the bid in March because the bids were more expensive than what the city could pay.”

In 2020, there was renewed interest in the project as Covid-19 forced Alexandrians to work and attend school from home. The city was further spurred by an announcement from Comcast, the city’s monopoly ISP, that it would be instituting data caps at a time when home broadband connection data usage was increasing dramatically.

A Step Closer to Competition

At long last, city officials broke ground on a municipal fiber project in August. The city leases it’s current network from Comcast, which connects nearly 90 facilities. The city put out a seperate RFP in November 2021 for private ISPs to start bidding on a plan to build out the last mile, using the conduit from the I-Net. 

The backbone network will run along Interstate 95 to the south, looping around the community on King Street, and connecting on South Washington Street in Old Town. It will connect facilities like the Friendship Firehouse Museum as well as active fire departments, libraries and other government facilities such as the Alexandria City Health Department.  

Proposals are due on December 30 at 12pm. The city is looking for proposals that prioritize digital equity:

DIGITAL EQUITY - The Franchise shall include provisions to provide services to include: 

A. Providing Wi-Fi locations at a proposed list of City parks and recreation centers 

B. Provide a plan for how to dedicate funding and services to the City’s affordable housing units 

C. Provide access to community partners who provide assistance to residents in who have limited or no access to broadband, and

D. Provide Wi-Fi in City parks where broadband services may be limited

E. Providing service for a proposed list of non-profit organization who provide services to Alexandria residents

The RFP also requires that the ISP offer a 1 gigabit per second symmetrical option.

While there are many questions that remain to be answered about what will happen next, it is clear the city is looking to bring competitive options to its residents and businesses, having grown weary of the monopoly grip that Comcast has had on Alexandrians access to high-speed Internet service. 

Header image courtesy of Jc7792, Wikimedia