Alexandria Relaunches Search for Municipal Broadband Network Builder

For many families in Alexandria this year, high-speed Internet access has been a necessity, not a luxury.

With children attending classes via Zoom and adults working remotely, having a fast and reliable Internet connection is critical for everyone’s success — and sanity. The City of Alexandria has put forth significant efforts to make sure families who need Internet access can get it and afford it. 

Still, residents are taking to Facebook or Nextdoor to ask, “Is anyone else having issues with Comcast today?” Complaints about frozen screens, disconnected Zoom calls and reliability are increasing as residents demand more from their web connection. 

“Based on what has happened recently with COVID, we definitely are aware of how much broadband connects the community to services and things that they need,” said Vanetta Pledger, chief information officer for the City of Alexandria.

“It’s really our desire to do as much as we can to promote competition in Alexandria and to ensure residents have options and sound solutions so they can conduct the business they need.”

The lack of competition in Alexandria for high-speed Internet service has been a major concern of residents for many years. With only one citywide broadband provider, most residents have few choices other than to pay Comcast for their Internet and television.

That may be changing: On Monday, the Alexandria city officials reissued an Invitation to Bid (ITB) for the construction of a Municipal Fiber Network. This is step one of a project that will connect city offices via high-speed fiber. It may also be a step toward attracting new partnerships with internet providers and increasing broadband competition in Alexandria.

Comcast to Cap Data Usage

One of the current concerns about lack of competition in Alexandria is that Comcast announced last week that it will be instituting a data cap of 1.2 TB (terabytes) per month starting in 2021. This cap was already in place in other parts of the country, but it will be new to this region.

1.2 TB is a lot of data — more than three times the amount of data the average household uses in a month. The most recent estimate is the average household uses 383 GB per month, according to OpenVault.

Comcast reports that 95 percent of customers do not exceed the data cap. However, OpenVault reports that the number of households using more than 1 TB of data is growing, particularly now that many children and adults are on Zoom or other high-bandwidth apps for hours each day, in addition to ever-increasing usage of streaming HD video.

What about FiOS?

To open up options for broadband providers, the City is currently laying the groundwork to build its own fiber optic service (FiOS). The Municipal Fiber Network would connect existing city facilities and private providers could piggyback on that.

The City is “overbuilding” the municipal fiber network to attract partnerships with private providers other than Comcast. FiOS development is very expensive. The goal is to lay a solid groundwork for a company to expand upon.

“So, we can say, ‘Hello, industry. Hello, world. How would you best leverage this asset to provide the community services?’” Pledger said.  “We want to do equitable access. We want to, as best as we can, target the entire community.”

The City is not allowed to serve as a direct provider of broadband and other services to households under state law — nor would they want to, according to a Facebook post by Mayor Justin Wilson this week.

Cost is part of the reason other companies have not been able to come to Alexandria. It is too expensive to build their own network completely from scratch, and there are other cheaper places for them to expand.

In 2017, the initial estimated cost of just the first phase of a Municipal Broadband Network was $8.4 million.

 Verizon in 2009 obtained a permit to build fiber to homes in Alexandria. However, in 2010 to company decided their future was in wireless and not in FiOS, according to the Facebook post by Wilson.

The City released an initial Invitation to Bid (ITB) the City’s Municipal Fiber Network in November 2019 but cancelled the bid in March because the bids were more expensive than what the city could pay.

The ITB was revamped and posted again on Nov. 30. Part of the reworking was extending the timeline to build from two year to four years, according to Pledger.

According to the City’s Municipal Broadband website

“With the construction of the new fiber optic network, the City is planning to seek new partners who could lease excess conduit space to provide broadband service to residents and businesses. This would allow all providers to compete fairly and would encourage providers to offer consumer services.”

It continues, “Because digging and burying conduit is a significant cost of building a fiber network, the City is taking all reasonable opportunities to lay conduit wherever current digging projects are already underway and align with the municipal fiber construction. This approach strives to avoid unnecessary impacts on neighborhoods and businesses.”

The deadline for contractors to submit a bid is Jan. 29, 2021. At that point, the City will review the bids.

Improving Your Connection

If you are suffering from a slow Internet connection, there are several steps you can take to improve your speed.

To see how fast your Internet connection is actually performing, download the mobile app Speedtest. If your connection is slower than it should be, take the following steps: 

Move Your Router

Your router is the device that sends out your Wi-Fi signal to your devices. Positioning the router in the center of the house will help your connection throughout your space. If there is a floor of the house you use your Wi-Fi connected devices the most, move the router to that same floor.

If you have trouble connecting in the further corners of the house that are needed for competing Zoom calls, you may consider buying a Wi-Fi repeater. A Wi-Fi repeater will boost your signal in harder-to-reach areas of the home.

Restart Your Router

Restarting your router can help speed up your internet. Your router can get bogged down by requests that fill up its memory. Restarting clears those requests and refreshed your router performance, according to Consumer Reports.

You can do this once a month or whenever your Wi-Fi slows down. To do this, unplug the router from the power and from the cable, wait 60 seconds, and plug it back in.

Ask Comcast to Restart Your Modem

In addition to physically restarting the router, log into your Comcast account online, go to technical support and hit the button on that website to restart your modem (even if the website says you don’t need to). Comcast will do this for you remotely. It takes about 15 minutes, but can significantly boost your speed.

Find Your Yellow Cords (Use Ethernet)

Instead of messing with your router, you may be able to cut right to the chase and plug in your computer with an Ethernet cord. Many newer laptops don’t have this option, but if you computer does have an Ethernet port, a direct connection via an ethernet cord (which are usually yellow or blue) will always be faster and more reliable than a wireless connection.

This is particularly useful for devices you stream a lot of content on, such as video game systems, TVs and computers.

Clear Your Cache

While surfing the internet, your browser collects temporary data – cache files. These files build up as you go around to different sites. Clearing these files, especially if your computer has low storage space, will help increase your computer’s speed, making it more responsive to your requests. Beware that clearing your cache often means that saved passwords will be removed, so be sure you have your passwords backed up somewhere for easy reference. 

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