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Earthlink Wifi: Is it a good deal for Arlington?

I’ve had a chance to read through the proposed Arlington County/Earthlink agreement (PDF), and am throwing my summary up here in the hope that it might be useful to other Arlington residents interested in the matter. If you’re not an Arlington resident, you may still be interested, as a lot of cities are considering similar agreements. My summary is not legal advice, a comprehensive analysis, or a substitute for reading the agreement yourself. So, with that said, here are the quick and dirty basics of the proposed agreement:

  • In return for getting access to County owned light poles in public rights-of-way (e.g., medians and sidewalks) for the next 20 years, Earthlink will build out a wireless network in Arlington County.
  • Earthlink will pay Arlington County $40,000 a year.
  • The service will be available to home and business users for a yet-to-be determined fee.
  • Earthlink will provide free access in certain county parks.
  • Earthlink will provide, free of charge, access accounts to certain county recreation centers, and as-yet-unidentified Arlington non-profits. It will also make accounts available to selected county employees at a very low ($10) rate.
  • Earthlink will “establish, construct, own, operate, upgrade, and maintain” the network – so it won’t be Arlington County you’re buying service from. For the most part, unless you’re in a park or community center, it doesn’t appear that you’ll have any indication that the county was involved with this.
  • There are no apparent coverage requirements/benchmarks. Wherever the service is available, however, Earthlink will make sure than anyone can access, free of charge, certain county websites (i.e., “Walled Garden Service”).
  • The network is scheduled to be operational 6 to 8 months after the effective date of the agreement.

All in all, pretty standard stuff. They’re doing the right thing on a number of points, while I’m not so thrilled with a few others.

So, what are the points that I think matter?

Exclusivity– This is a non-exclusive agreement, by its terms. That means that, conceivably, a competitor to Earthlink could come to an agreement with the County to install its own competing hardware on similar terms to Earthlink. In practice, however, it is unlikely. Especially if Earthlink lives up to its Open Access obligations.

Open Access -Section 3.2 provides that “In operating the Network, [Earthlink] is committed to in good faith provide an open access system on which third parties can provide services enabled by the Network that may be competitive with each other and EarthLink.” This is good. In theory, a competing ISP will be able to lease capacity on the Earthlink network, and resell it (presumably with better service/data rates/lower prices) to consumers and businesses. While that is *very* theoretical, I regard its inclusion in the agreement as a definite good.

Public Goods – So what does the County and public get out of this? Free wifi in the following parks, for use by the public:

  • Fort Ethan Allen Park
  • Barcroft Park
  • Bluemont Park
  • Greenbrier Park
  • Gateway Park
  • Quincy Park
  • Virginia Highlands Park
  • Powhatan Springs Park

(Let the wailing by the community associations around unlisted parks begin!) The agreement also provides for wifi in the following community centers:

  • Aurora Hills Community Center
  • Barcroft Park Sports and Fitness Center
  • Carver Community Center
  • Dawson Terrace Community Center
  • Charles Drew and Community Center
  • Fairlington Community Center
  • Gunston Community Center
  • Langston Brown Community Center
  • Lee Community Center
  • Lubber Run Park
  • Madison Community Center @ Ft. Ethan Allen Park
  • Thomas Jefferson Community Center
  • Walter Reed Community Center
  • Gulf Branch Nature Center
  • Long Branch Nature Center@ Glen Carlin Park
  • Fort C.F. Smith (Building)
  • Recreation and Cultural Affairs Building
  • Culpepper Gardens Senior Center
  • Ellipse Art Gallery

As the contract is written, Earthlink is responsible for getting the service to the community service building, and then the county the service to the users.

Restrictions on Use of Payment to County – Section 3.10 provides that the “County shall use [the $40,000 a year payment] for expenditures relating to bridging the digital divide and enhancing signal availability in County Facilities.” Do you have any idea what that means? No, me neither.

Emergency Preparedness Plan – This one really makes me wonder. Section 4.2 starts off innocuously enough – “[Earthlink] and the County shall work in good faith to develop a mutually acceptable emergency disaster preparedness plan.” Okay, that seems reasonable. But it goes on to say that “[Earthlink] shall provide the County certain priority access and emergency notification capabilities, whereby the County shall have the capability to cause users browsing the Internet to be redirected periodically to County-designated messages during public emergencies[.]” I don’t know about you, but I’m really not interested in having Arlington government decide to interrupt my Internet access and take control of my browser at any point, even during public emergencies (note that this is undefined). There are a lot more reliable and less troubling ways to get emergency information out. And Arlington’s doing a decent job of using them. I see no reason to include this provision as part of the final agreement.

Obviously, there’s a lot more to this agreement that I’m not telling you here. I hope, though, that I’ve covered the important points. If you’ve read the agreement, and think I missed something important, please do let me know. While it’s not the sexiest issue on the table, this is something that will affect all of us, and I hope that folks are paying attention. I’m going to try and catch the public hearing tonight – if I make it, I’ll update here.

Related post: Arlington’s Proposed Agreement with Earthlink.


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  1. Very interesting overview. Thanks.

    It’s too bad they are using a huge national company like earthlink instead of a local company. I don’t know how many local wifi providers there are (I know there’s at least one in DC), but hope they got to submit proposals before arlington chose the walmart of internet providers.

    Also, they should really specify the list of nonprofits that will get free access beforehand. I can see earthlink deciding upon, say, 2 nonprofits that get it while there should be hundreds.

  2. MB

    Thanks, A. I’m working on a summary of the hearing – some more good news, and a couple more less-than-thrilling bits.

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