Hampton Roads, a metropolitan region bordering the Chesapeake Bay in southeastern Virginia, is known for its 17th century historical sites, shipyards crowded with naval aircraft carriers, and mile-long bridge tunnels. Home to 1.7 million Virginians, Hampton Roads is now looking to broaden avenues for economic development by leveraging existing transatlantic subsea broadband cables to transform the region into a technology-forward digital port. That’s why regional officials recently issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) seeking one or more private partner(s) to construct a regionally-owned 100-mile, open access fiber ring.
Private partners interested in responding to the RFP [pdf] must do so by August 24, 2021. Potential partners can decide to offer some or all of the project functions, choosing to: design, build, finance, operate, and/or maintain the regional fiber ring. (See instructions on how to respond to the RFP, as well as details on the selection process, under Section IV on Page 7.)
Five of the nine cities that make up the region colloquially referred to as “the 757” - Chesapeake, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Suffolk, and Virginia Beach - banded together to improve local fiber connectivity in 2018, forming the Southside Network Authority (the Authority).
According to the Authority's RFP, the project was undertaken to resolve the broadband issues faced by the cities, including:
a need for more and more affordable internal connectivity for governmental operations
equity and affordability concerns in general as compared to similar metropolitan areas
a perceived lack of responsiveness by incumbent providers to the needs of the business community and economic development prospects
a relative lack of broadband infrastructure by comparison to comparable metropolitan areas
and concerns about the security and scalability of existing, privately-owned regional networks
The open access fiber ring will serve the region in multiple ways, promising to expand affordable Internet access to unserved and underserved communities, reduce the cost of intergovernmental broadband connections, and serve as the basis for smart regional development. Planners also say it will further improve educational opportunities, attract business investment, and advance innovation.
One of the Authority’s objectives is to provide a higher quality of life for citizens. In line with that goal, the city of Portsmouth has already proposed using the fiber optic backbone as a platform to achieve citywide digital inclusion initiatives and has announced plans to utilize its $9 million municipal network to facilitate a project which will provide Wi-Fi to unserved and underserved housing developments in low-income districts, highlighted below.
An added benefit of building an open access fiber ring is that it will foster an ecosystem in which Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have access to middle mile fiber at nondiscriminatory rates, laying the groundwork for multiple ISPs to compete in delivering more affordable retail Internet service. The entrance of new ISPs into the market creates competition, which tends to drive down prices charged to end-users.
The fiber ring will also drastically cut recurring Internet costs expended by the five cities to connect government buildings. In 2017, consultants estimated the potential cost savings the city of Portsmouth would enjoy by investing in its own infrastructure, rather than leasing lines from existing providers, would be approximately $421,000 over a five-year period. The consultants found, at that time, that the city was expending more than $1 million per year to connect its municipal facilities, schools, and public libraries. Consultants estimated that the municipal network, built over a five-year period, will pay for itself in ten years.
The regional fiber network will further allow for the development of smart communities, with network planners having taken environmental concerns specific to Hampton Roads into consideration. The region is currently experiencing the highest rates of sea level rise along the entire East Coast, due to the combined effects of global warming and geologic shifts causing Virginia’s land to sink. Norfolk and Virginia Beach are sinking at greater than 3.5 millimeters per year. Finding solutions to rising seas and potential flooding requires resources to mitigate impacts and enhance emergency preparedness. The fiber network will change how the region monitors sea level elevation by connecting flood sensors delivering real-time metrics, and by unifying data [pdf] from various environmental initiatives so that they are able to learn from one another.
The regional fiber network will have many other benefits as well, enhancing the area’s public safety, transportation, education, and economic development efforts. More on the network’s initiatives can be found in the Hampton Roads Regional Connectivity Ring Master Plan [pdf].
Connecting the Entirety of Hampton Roads
While the planned fiber ring will connect Hampton Roads’ five southernmost cities, the Authority does not intend to leave four neighboring communities located on the Virginia Peninsula behind in their quest for regional connectivity.
According to Robert Crum, Executive Director of the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, “The ring in South Hampton Roads is the first step to connecting the entire area. HRPDC planners are beginning discussions with Peninsula government officials on building a similar fiber ring in that region. The final step would then connect the two fiber rings,” reports The Virginian-Pilot.
Connecting the four metropolitan cities located on the Virginia Peninsula to the fiber backhaul will ensure that critical regional enterprises - such as Newport News Shipbuilding, the largest military shipbuilding company in the U.S. which employs 40,000 people living across Hampton Roads, and higher education facilities, like Hampton University - have the same next-generation infrastructure as their neighbors across the Bay.
The State of Broadband Currently
Though better connectivity is on the way, currently most Hampton Roads’ residents rely on two ISPs for Internet service - fiber and DSL service through Verizon or cable service through Cox Communications.
Many in the region, especially those residing in Norfolk where Verizon FiOS is not available, have long held grievances over having too few options for Internet service. Norfolk residents have also complained about repeated Internet outages and Cox’s poor customer service. The complaints were so frequent the city put up a FAQ page about it.
Residents in Norfolk and Newport News have also taken to Reddit to share their experiences, reporting up to a $40 differential in the amount they pay Cox monthly for the same cable service in different cities across the region. The lack of competition has resulted in costs incrementally increasing over the years and users often paying over $100/month for service after taxes and fees. Verizon, still reluctant to expand fiber service into Norfolk, but aiming to eat away at Cox’s subscriber base, tends to price their FiOS service in other cities at a more modest rate - one user reported paying $30/month for symmetrical 100 megabit per second speeds, though they mentioned the standard rate for the service was $40/month, at the time.
In 2016, Ocean View Representative Tommy Smigiel complained about the “out of control price” of Cox’s Internet service in Norfolk, which he attributed to a lack of competition. With the city of Norfolk having recently announced that it is working with Indiana-based ISP MetroNet to construct a gigabit fiber-to-the-home network reaching every resident and business within the city, increased options and competition are on their way to town.
Two cities embarking on the regional fiber build, Virginia Beach and Suffolk, each already own a fiber Institutional Network (I-Net), but have yet to lease excess capacity to ISPs who may be interested in offering services to residents and businesses. In Suffolk, municipal facilities offer public Wi-Fi.
Regional Connectivity in the Age of Technology
Collaboration and teamwork between the South Hampton Roads cities will allow for high-speed connectivity and data delivery throughout southern Hampton Roads, ensuring its citizens and companies can compete on a national and global scale. With plans to connect the four cities located on the Virginia Peninsula to the network located on the southside, regional leaders are steadfast in ensuring all Hampton Roads residents benefit from this initiative and the opportunities it will bring.
“Regional connectivity is a must have in the technology age that we are in and to survive municipalities have to band together to make sure we make this happen,” said Portsmouth’s Chief Information Officer Daniel Jones.