Plumbing for Profit

Urban fiber construction takes to sewers

The nations capital, considered by many builders of metropolitan fiber-optic networks to be one of the most unpredictable municipalities to work with, is on the verge of finding out whether its sewers are lined with gold.

CityNet Telecommunications, a company pioneering the use of Swiss-made robots to string fiber in sewer pipes in the U.S., is in advanced talks with officials in the Washington, D.C., mayors office, attempting to strike a deal to begin dragging cable through the citys plumbing. Aside from representing the Silver Spring, Md., companys first big-city contract, the deal has a precedent-setting dimension — proving to municipal managers nationwide that there is a way to deploy 21st-century infrastructure without trenching and retrenching city streets.

"Each of the great metropolitan areas like Washington, D.C., has an awfully tough decision to deal with. On the one hand, it is very important for each community to have the best telecommunications infrastructure. On the other hand, trenching and unidirectional boring have a devaluing impact on the most basic infrastructure — the roadways," says Robert Berger, CityNets chief executive and chairman.

No kidding. After an ambulance stuck in a traffic jam caused by trenching activity sparked a citywide scandal last year, Washington authorities shut down all fiber-optic construction, at least temporarily. Companies with jobs in progress were hardest hit.

"They held up us and our customer four to five months with this moratorium," says Bill LaPerch, senior vice president of engineering and operations at Metromedia Fiber Network.

Washingtons moratorium underscored just how vulnerable the metro fiber network construction business is in the regulatory world. Americas largest cities are joining the Internet age one by one, and at the whim of their local elected officials, and network builders are working in a Wild West of sorts, where the local sheriffs are making up the rules as they go along.

However, companies such as CityNet — which so far is unique in its plan to use sewers as conduits for dark fiber — are putting deals on the municipal table that are hard to turn down. The company has agreements with Albuquerque, N.M.; Indianapolis; and Omaha, Neb., that include revenue-sharing components that pour cash into city coffers, and help with urban economic development by linking buildings in the city over a ubiquitous network.

Many large cities are toying with similar concepts. Chicago leads the way with its CivicNet plan. The city expects to spend about $250 million on the public-private project, which likely will include improvements to the existing fiber network and upgrades to the way private companies can link into that network. In the end, the plan should help city officials to map where and how networks would be deployed, while preserving pavement by allowing businesses to easily find their last-mile connectivity on Chicagos network, instead of laying new fiber. The city recently released a 130-page request for information, and expects to award contracts as early as this fall.

"For any city economy to be successful in the 21st century, they absolutely have to have modern digital communications," says Joel Mambretti, director of the International Center for Advanced Internet Research at Northwestern University and chairman of the RFI subcommittee. "Asking if any other cities would do what Chicago is doing is like asking if any other city should have a telephone system in the 1950s, or a power system."

But as cities get involved in regulating metro network construction, the level of bureaucracy is bound to increase. Reformers seem to understand that the framework of potential regulation for metropolitan fiber builds has to be nonintrusive, so that the city works at easing the pain of constructing these networks, but doesnt interfere with their operation.

Still, city officials are bound to emerge as greater regulators of fiber-optic construction as more of them realize that not only do they own the keys to the broadband kingdom, but they also stand to benefit greatly from the broadband rush — if they can keep the roads intact and network operators happy.

A portion of the money that companies such as MFN pay today to construction subcontractors such as Bechtel is likely to find its way into city purses eventually, hopefully in exchange for greater speed and ease of fiber deployment.

"The right to access CivicNet wont be just a license, it would be a public-private partnership where both sets of people work together. Its a partnership where everyone who is a provider understands the requirements, and the people who are setting forth the requirements have detailed what the specifications are. And so far, providers who have responded have been very enthusiastic," Mambretti says.

Operators seem to cheer for efforts such as CivicNet and for private-sector solutions offered by companies such as CityNet, since both clear-cut municipal procedures and turnkey private sector solutions are better than poking around the large, bureaucratic machine of local government.

"We dont compete on how fast we can dig up a trench," MFNs LaPerch says.