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Portsmouth, Va., Pins Its Economic, Social Future on High-Speed Connectivity

The city will build its own fiber-optic infrastructure to boost economic development, improve city services and close a significant digital divide.

by / August 15, 2018
Improved Internet connectivity is at the center of new smart city efforts in the coastal city of Portsmouth, Va. Shutterstock
Digital connectivity and high-speed Internet access are at the heart of a smart city game plan in Portsmouth, Va.
This city of roughly 97,000 residents near Newport News has a plan to establish some 55 miles of “long-haul, low-latency” fiber that will connect municipal facilities, such as public safety departments, schools, parks, as well as external stakeholders like big businesses and hospitals, according to Daniel Jones, chief information officer for Portsmouth.
“We’ll be able to provide the businesses with this fiber-optic connection to help them with the connectivity and bandwidth for any high intensity applications,” he said.
The city first established a strategic master plan for fiber-optic connectivity infrastructure about 18 months ago. The $9 million fiber project is currently in vendor negotiations, and will appear on the City Council agenda this month. Construction will likely begin this fall.
“It's slated to be a multiyear project,” said Jones. 
Other cities, including Cincinnati, San Francisco, Ammon, Idaho and Lafayette, La., have developed city-owned fiber connectivity in an effort to expand economic development and smart city projects, as well as bring digital connectivity to disenfranchised populations.
Over the course of the next five months the city is also conducting a citizen connectivity study, which will function as an analytics piece to the city’s overall smart city initiatives. For example, the study will begin to answer questions such as, how many residents lack an Internet connection at home?
“We have thoughts or maybe impressions of what that may be, but there’s no real, true, statistical data that we can rely on,” said Jones.
Some 6,234 homes in Portsmouth had no Internet access, according to the U.S. Census 2016 American Community Survey, out of more than 36,600 households, the most recent data available.
The study will be structured as a series of workshops to hear from residents, businesses and others to learn what connectivity needs are lacking in Portsmouth, and what opportunities could be opened up with improved digital infrastructure.
The study will also show where mobile-phone data is being used in high levels, an indication that broadband connectivity may be unavailable or unreliable.
“So maybe that’s somewhere we could interject Wi-Fi coverage,” said Jones.
In many communities “smart city” projects have been billed as instruments to bridge the digital divide in low-income neighborhoods, where residents may encounter numerous obstacles to a reliable high-speed Internet connection, hurting their employment opportunities or community engagement.
Internet providers for low-income residents in the area are few, said Jones. And often, residents still have to pass a credit check and other obstacles before being approved for service, leaving many residents without access. Making connectivity easier for all residents is part of Portsmouth’s overall effort to fight poverty and grow job opportunities.
“If you go to any retailer, or big-box [store] or something like that, they’re going to say, ‘go online and fill out an application,’” said Jones. “If they can’t get online it’s just a revolving despair of not being included in the digital age,” he added. “And everything we see today in the digital age is remote-work, tele-work; this goes hand-in-hand with our poverty initiative throughout the city, which is to help lift up that sector of the community.”
Skip Descant Staff Writer

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.

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