Cable Franchise Yields Security Dividend

Cable Franchise Yields Security Dividend

Fiber-optic wires connect neighboring jurisdictions.

Alexandria and Arlington have a historic relationship. Both were ceded to the federal government to be part of the District of Columbia in the 1790s, and both were "retroceded" back to Virginia in the 1840s. Now, in the 21st century, they have a new connection that will increase security response and government efficiency in Northern Virginia.

As part of its franchising agreement, Comcast has installed hardware that connects the two neighboring institutional networks. Alexandria and Arlington equally divided the $50,000 payment to Comcast to create the link.

"It's one of those things where if you build it, they will come," said LaTanya Fauntleroy, cable administrator for Arlington County. "There are so many possibilities for sharing information."

The fiber link regional interconnection will eventually also connect with Falls Church and Fairfax County, creating a regional network in which information can be sent instantaneously from one place to the next. The inter-jurisdictional connection creates a dedicated, secure link that will initially be used for voice and video applications for public safety.

"IN THE EVENT of an emergency, knowing what neighboring jurisdictions are doing will help us make better decisions," said Mark Jinks, Alexandria's assistant city manager. "The primary application is public safety, but this technology has many possibilities."

According to an Arlington County memorandum of understanding between the two municipalities dated June 22, linking the networks will have immediate benefits.

"The interconnection will be used for the purpose of conducing government business that affects both jurisdictions," the agreement stated. "For a 120-day pilot period, the interconnection will be used to support a video arraignment connection between the Arlington County Sheriff's Office and the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center, and to provide for the operation of the city's payroll system, which the county currently supports."

Future applications for the Alexandria-Arlington fiber link include:

* connecting emergency operation centers of the two jurisdictions

* sharing live video and satellite programming

* videoconferencing for inter-jurisdictional meetings

* sharing building permit, GIS, tax and criminal identification databases

* integrated traffic management between neighboring communities

* backup connections to radio controllers in neighboring communities

* backup 911 call centers and emergency operations centers in neighboring communities.

INSTITUTIONAL NETWORKS were installed in Alexandria and Arlington as a result of stipulations in cable franchise agreements that were made in the late 1990s. At that time, cable companies were replacing their old copper wires with new fiber-optic cables — a technology that uses infrared light to transmit information.

The local governments were able to make demands on the cable companies because of provisions in the Communications Act that requires providers to meet public service obligations. A 1984 amendment to the act known as "Title 6" created regulatory authority for local governments to demand that cable companies meet "public obligations." These obligations included public-accesses channels and institutional networks.

Cable companies agreed to include "dark" wires — fiber optic lines that could one day be "lit" by the local government. The franchising authority of local governments gave them the ability to make Jones Cable and Cable TV Arlington bundle city wires with private wires when the cables were installed in Alexandria and Arlington. Comcast now holds the franchise in Arlington and Alexandria, a document that gives the neighboring municipalities the power to ask Comcast to create a link between the institutional networks.

"If we had paid for this kind of an operation, it would have been in the tens of millions of dollars," said Jinks, who is the city's staff liaison to the city's Commission on Information Technology. "The franchising agreement allowed the city to make this kind of a request from Comcast."

Alexandria's institutional network went live in 1998; Arlington's went live in 2002. Last year, both jurisdictions agreed to connect their networks.

THE IDEA THAT cable providers should be required to meet public service obligations dates back to the late 1970s, when cable was a new phenomenon. As localities were making franchise agreements with cable companies, the Federal Communications Commission issued guidelines that stipulated public obligations. In 1984, the obligations were written into Title 6 to the Communications Act.

But pending legislation in Congress seeks to do away with the franchising process for cable providers, ostensibly freeing the market for competition. One consequence of doing away with the franchising process would be the loss of capacity set asides for local governments. Known as the Broadband Investment and Consumer Choice Bill, the legislation sponsored by U.S. Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) and co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was introduced last month.

"Consumers will see the benefits of video competition sooner because we eliminate the requirement of negotiating lengthy contracts with 30,000 local cable franchise authorities," said Ensign last week when he introduced the bill shortly before the congressional recess.

The bill is opposed by advocates of public obligations such as Libby Beaty, executive director of the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors — an organization that describes its mission to represent "local governments and those who advise local government on telecommunications issues."

"It eliminates Title 6 provisions, doing away with public obligations for the cable companies," Beaty said. "This puts at risk the existence aspects of the institutional networks as they exist today."

THE ALLURE of creating free markets has brought Ensign's proposed legislation a wide array of support, including U.S. Rep. James Moran. One controversy that has emerged from the reform effort is the ability of states to offer broadband connections and wi-fi networks such as the one that was launched last week in Alexandria.

"The Broadband Investment and Consumer Choice Act is a starting point for telecommunications reform, and I commend Senators Ensign and McCain for taking this first step," said Moran. "As my staff and I evaluate the bill, I will be particularly concerned with access to broadband Internet and information services. Northern Virginia has been a leader in offering high-speed Internet and innovative services like free wi-fi hotspots in public spaces. Any telecommunications reform should embrace expanding these services to as many Americans as possible as well as foster local government use of current and future networking infrastructure."

The bill marks a first effort at reforming the nation's telecommunications laws. Members of Congress are still examining different provisions, and the bill is described as a "work in progress" by congressional staffers who are working on the telecommunications reform. McCain, for example, co-sponsored the bill but disagreed with the provision allowing states to prevent municipalities from offering broadband.

"While this legislation does offer an alternative approach from the one I have advocated for addressing the municipal broadband issue, I still felt compelled to sign on as an original co-sponsor because I believe the legislation is an excellent step toward deregulating the industry," said McCain, who co-sponsored the bill. "If we are serious about providing Americans more choices and better technologies, this deregulatory bill provides the framework to do so."

The reform effort currently being considered on Capitol Hill includes deregulating the industry in a way that will prevent Arlington and Alexandria from exercising the kind of franchising authority that made the recent inter-jurisdictional connection possible.