Laying Fiber: Creative Broadband Installations
By Howard Baldwin, Contributing Columnist
One of the most aggravating aspects of broadband deployment is the absence of a right answer. A few weeks ago, we asked Private or Public Sector: Who Should Deploy Broadband?. The answer was that there was no clear answer.
More recently, we set out to update Steve Shepard’s 2011 story about Fiber Optic Cable Installation In Sewers, looking for creative ways that companies or countries are using the existing underground passages to deploy fiber inexpensively. Same result: there was no clear answer.
We sat down with Jim Hayes, president of the Fallbrook, California-based Fiber Optic Association, which since its founding in 1995 has set standards for the installation of fiber optic cable and coordinated training for installers. That puts Hayes in constant contact with people around the world who are trying to figure out how to deploy fiber and get citizens and customers online.
Hayes confirms, “Every situation is different. No two projects are exactly alike. It’s not a problem – it’s a fact of life.”
In an industry like technology, where successful installations frequently rely on precise, repeatable, and standardized instructions, where best practices are designed to provide an established set of steps, to keep people from always starting with a blank sheet of paper, this is inherently frustrating. On the other hand, there is an upside: in a world where there are no right answers, there are also few wrong answers. In laying fiber, there is a great capacity to be creative.
That creativity includes, as Shepard noted, laying fiber within the sewers of London, Paris, Tokyo, Sydney, and New York, as well as the drive toward duct sharing in Portugal and micro-trenching in San Francisco (which has also used its sewers). The creativity is driven by the desire to avoid the expense of burying cable, and Hayes cites multiple examples from his experience with the FOA.
Kenya: Cheap Labor. The Kenyan government managed to solve several problems simultaneously. The first problem was ongoing network outages. A little investigation discovered that the original fiber had been installed using Chinese slave labor – essentially, prisoners, according to Hayes, who witnessed a plane-load of prisoners heading back to China from the Nairobi airport – at a depth of just one foot.
“It was really easy for thieves to dig it up.” For an installation between Nairobi and Mombasa, the FOA recommended going 1.5 meters deep, which is deeper than anyone is willing to dig to steal the cable. “It sounds expensive, but local labor is so cheap, it not only keeps the cost down but it provides jobs for people.”
Turkey: Skip the Digging. Hayes notes that the cost of installing cable is directly proportional to the population density: the more people, the more expensive. But Turkey is a land of dense cities and vast agricultural areas.
There, the government strung fiber optic cable on seven-meter-high utility poles, setting the poles along the roads where it already had the right of way. He added that U.S. cities like Chattanooga and Boston are using this method as well.
United States: Cooperative Connections. For financial creativity, few can beat the city of Santa Monica, California. To create its city-wide fiber network, CityNet, Hayes notes, its politicians lobbied for federal tax money – some from the Department of Education to connect the schools, some from the Department of Homeland Security to connect security cameras, and some from the Department of Transportation to connect its traffic lights.
The result was an underground fiber backbone running throughout the city, some of which they then leased to Verizon for its FIOS high-speed networks. There are enough film production facilities in Santa Monica, says Hayes, and enough previously installed fiber elsewhere in Los Angeles, that the studios are able to transmit daily shooting (aka rushes) electronically via fiber rather than physically.
United States: Piggy-Backing for Profit. The local utility in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the Electric Power Board (EPB) originally planned only to build a smart grid, not run fiber-to-the-home. But they realized that when they ran fiber to the electrical meters, the cost was minimal to provide other services.
It’s now offering triple-play services (phone, Internet, television) within the city, and according to Hayes, the city’s fiber-optic network was a key reason for car manufacturer Volkswagen agreeing to establish a factory there.
With every situation somewhat different, Hayes also recommends at looking for partners. Sometimes cities can work with telcos who want to upgrade their infrastructure. Sometimes broadband service providers can work with utilities to piggyback on the latter’s optical-power ground wire, which sits on top of utility poles.
“Figure out the business case. Determine the physical conditions you have to work with. Find out which entities have the authority to get things done,” says Hayes.
Hayes also advises looking at each situation’s unique characteristics. “Look at the geographic area. Look at what’s there currently and think about how you can take advantage of it,” he says, noting that the city of Boston paid for its fiber-optic installation by selling the copper they ripped out when they installed the fiber.
When New Zealand started installing its National Broadband system, it didn’t want to dig up every front yard — so it installed wireless routers on its telephone poles to provide access. Google has developed a flexible vinyl duct for fiber that’s inconspicuous enough to be attached to a sidewalk.
There are no best practices, so think about all the potential possibilities. You’ll be surprised how creative you can be.