In a unique public partnership, Arlington County, Va., has taken the first big steps for a fiber-optic network that will support education, emergency management and other government use.

Across the country, there aren't many county and school board members who value investing in a fiber-optic network that doesn't provide a return for a number of years, said Jack Belcher, CIO of Arlington County, Va.

But Arlington County does.

"It's going to take time to realize the cost benefit out of this," said Belcher, who also directs the county's Department of Technology Services. "You're going to have to invest a lot of money that could go elsewhere. But you're putting it here because you see a value to be achieved, and that's significant."

In late February, Arlington County completed the first major phase of a new fiber-optic network called ConnectArlington.

3 Drivers of ConnectArlington

Three keys spurred the fiber-optic network project.

1. Through Comcast, the county already has a fiber network for anchor institutions that connects county buildings and schools. In 2013, the agreement between Arlington and Comcast will come up for renewal. The county's not sure if it will be able to continue using the network without paying a fee.

When Belcher became the county's first CIO in 2000, Arlington had a 1.5 megabit connection to the Internet and between buildings. Now with the Institutional Network, the county has 10 gigabits throughput at the core and 1 gigabit at the edge.

2. Three planned projects were dig up the streets, so that gave Arlington County an opportunity to work on its network at the same time.

With a federal grant, the county planned to replace copper wire with fiber in order to control traffic signals and video cameras. This would allow Arlington to install an additional conduit to support the extension of its fiber network.

And with a public bond, the county will replace a microwave-based public safety network with a fiber backbone. The public safety network alerts fire and police vehicles when there's an emergency.

At the same time, a Virginia power company called Dominion planned to extend its electricity grid in Arlington.

3. At schools and county government, demand for broadband has been increasing. In Arlington Public Schools, this increase is coming in part from the adoption of digital textbooks, tablets and different testing methods.

Within the next five years, the county expects to see a 35 to 50 percent increase in broadband demand.

"We had the uncertainty of the future, for one. You had the fact that we had all these efforts going on and we could leverage these, and third we saw — as everybody else has seen — the growth in the demand for bandwidth," Belcher said.

With these three opportunities coming together, the technology department decided to build ConnectArlington. This fiber-optic network will augment the existing network for anchor institutions and could replace it if down the road the county can't use the institutional network.

The Benefits of ConnectArlington

In a number of different areas, the new network will change how the county provides connectivity.

Public safety

When fiber goes through the county's approximately 168 traffic signals, these signals will become routers on the network. That will allow police and fire personnel who set up command villages for an event to connect to the network through traffic signals.

They'll be able to access broadband and wireless for video, audio and data connectivity during events including the Marine Corp Marathon and ceremonies at the Pentagon.

Education

Through ConnectArlington, Arlington Public Schools will be able to take advantage of Internet2 for distance learning. At no cost, students will be able to communicate with teachers and access electronic textbooks and online courses from wireless hot spots.

Emergency management

With an expansion of the county's emergency vehicle preemption system, 31 more intersections will give the green light to emergency vehicles.

The system previously ran over copper wire. Now it will run on fiber. On a few major routes, the Department of Transportation put in Bluetooth capability, which tracks how long it takes vehicles to move through the area.

Let's say emergency personnel receive a call about someone who has a heart attack in an urban area of the county.

"If you know ahead of time that the traffic is slowed down through traffic sensoring capabilities that you have in place, turning the lights on all the same color is not going to give you the speed you need to get there," Belcher said. "But if you know that's the case and you're able to go a different route that doesn't have the congestion, then that's almost as important as being able to change the traffic signal. It's knowing how to get to the location in a fast time frame. So it has immense value."

The Path Ahead

On an aggressive timetable, Arlington County faces the major challenge of connecting facilities that aren't on the network. While county government is centralized, schools are distributed in neighborhoods. To connect school facilities to the network core will require engineering, design and construction.

Then when the infrastructure goes live, it needs to come back online quickly if a truck or a drill hits a wire and disrupts the connectivity. With a bus architecture for this network, ConnectArlington will be redundant and will be able to take a different route when service is disrupted. The current institutional network isn't redundant and goes down because there's only one path out.

This week, the county brought 15 traffic signals onto the new network along with two hub stations at a fire station and county facility. By fall 2013, the county plans to have 50 sites — including 32 county and 18 school sites — on the network.

Two to three years after that, ConnectArlington should reach the remaining 20 county sites and about 23 school sites.

Tanya Roscorla  |  Managing Editor, CDE

Tanya Roscorla covers education technology in the classroom, behind the scenes and on the legislative agenda. Likes: Experimenting in the kitchen, cooking up cool crafts, reading good books.