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Virginia Beach, Va., Bolsters its Broadband Network

Once the broadband network is fully implemented, it will ultimately save the city $500,000 a year.

by Stacy Parker, The Virginian-Pilot / February 19, 2016
Virginia Beach, Va Open Street Map

(TNS) -- For the city’s Fire Department, a slow Internet connection could mean the difference between a contained fire and one that could grow out of control.

“In our field, seconds count,” said Battalion Chief Kenneth Pravetz.

The city and the public schools have their own broadband networks, but several municipal buildings are not yet connected to it.

Now, Virginia Beach wants to extend its fiber optic cables to provide high-speed Internet to 73 additional city buildings and offer connection spots for higher education facilities, businesses and other surrounding cities.

“We’re going to lay a fiber ring where basically everybody else can connect to,” said Councilman Ben Davenport, member of a task force that is exploring educational, economic and regional opportunities for Virginia Beach’s existing broadband network.

The city is also vying to be a landing point for a cable network that runs under the Atlantic Ocean.

From traffic lights data to video conferencing and email, information flows through the city every day. The need for handling big data at fast speeds is growing, said Matt Arvay, the city's chief information officer.

“The bigger pipe you need between point A and point B,” he said.

In neighboring communities, private and city owned fiber provide broadband to municipal buildings.

Norfolk leases lines from Cox Communications and also owns some, and it plans to increase the speed and capacity as well as partner with the public schools and other education institutions, according to Lori Crouch, a Norfolk spokeswoman.

In Chesapeake, Cox provides broadband to its city buildings. Most of Suffolk’s city facilities are connected by city owned fiber; the rest they lease from Charter Communications.

In Virginia Beach, having all of the city’s fire stations on a unified government network will improve response times, Pravetz said.

Firefighters receive emergency alerts through the Internet at the stations. Those on the city’s high-speed broadband network receive alerts faster than the ones at Green Run, Seatack and other stations that still use private Internet providers, he said.

Once the broadband network is fully implemented, it will ultimately save the city $500,000 a year. Virginia Beach has paid to lease lines from Cox Communications for buildings currently not on its network for years.

The public school system first invested about $12 million in 2002 to install 110 linear miles of fiber. The city has since installed 115 linear miles of broadband fiber. That project cost $20 million, which included federal and state money and $4 million from the city.

Expanding the existing fiber and purchasing new networking equipment to create the “Next Generation Network” will cost $4.1 million , and could be completed within 12 to 18 months, Arvay said. Neighboring cities could connect to points along Virginia Beach’s network for their own municipal broadband.

Cox will continue to maintain the city owned fiber.

“We have a robust fiber network in the city and are pleased to continue supporting the city as they look to expand their network and broadband capacity,” said Emma A. Inman, Cox spokeswoman.

Members of the Virginia Beach Broadband Task Force, a group of school and city leaders that was created in July, have begun to outline goals for the expansion. Providing connectivity to higher education facilities is one of them. Tidewater Community College and Old Dominion University’s beach campuses could have access to the infrastructure.

“For us, the opportunity to be connected will increase capacity and the ability tied to the research components of the university,” said Edna Baehre-Kolovani, TCC president.

The college offers training to area hospitals that develop databases for electronic health-records management.

“The advantage of being connected with a broadband partnership would help us reduce our operating cost and better capability for transmission of information,” she said.

The City Council and the School Board listened to an update from the task force on Jan. 19. With a bigger network, the city could lease conduit and fiber to business entities.

That bodes well for the proposed biomedical park on 155 acres in Princess Anne Commons, said Warren Harris, the city’s director of Economic Development.

Big data can be analyzed more effectively with broadband, and it’s a critical selling point when luring companies that specialize in biosciences to Virginia Beach.

“If we want to play in that space, it’s one of those necessary tools in the toolbox,” Harris said.

Davenport, who is on the task force, initially focused on how broadband would promote economic development. But he’s realizing now that expanding the network could have other benefits. One of his goals will be to bridge the “digital divide,” a term for the gap between those who have Internet service and those who don’t. Some families may not be able to afford to pay for the Internet, or some regions may only have access to small providers and slow speeds, Davenport said.

The task force is identifying where those gaps exist and will work to establish “educational impact zones” where wireless Internet would be available for students.

“Think of it like a big hotspot where anybody in the city’s public schools would basically get a password, and no matter where they are, boom, they can get on the Internet,” Davenport said.

If a cable network that runs under the Atlantic Ocean ends up in Virginia Beach, it could draw more businesses to the area and increase the city’s technological footprint, Harris said.

More municipalities across the nation are moving toward broadband independence.

Arlington County, which had a cable franchise with Comcast, has nearly completed its municipal broadband project that began in 2011. They’ve connected county buildings and intend to make it available to businesses.

“It’s the future,” said Jack Belcher, the county’s chief information officer. “People want to be able to move a lot of information very quickly.”

©2016 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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