Fiber hunter: How to improve Internet access by digging up forgotten fiber lines

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Fiber hunterFor cash-strapped city officials looking to provide high-speed Internet access to residents, the solution may be right under their feet. 

Service providers and local governments around the country in the 1990s and early 2000s, galvanized by the promise of fiber optic communications and bolstered by a strong economy, invested trillions of dollars in building out fiber loops. But many of those lines now sit either underused or completely unused and forgotten--even as the federal government hands out billions of dollars to install new broadband infrastructure.

Now, a small group of players is working to tap into those fiber lines. And in some cases they are even stumbling across unused--but still usable--fiber lines left forgotten inside sewers or abandoned buildings.

Spinning fiber into gold: Repurposing dark fiber

In 2004, Cleveland-based nonprofit OneCommunity (then known as OneCleveland) saw an opportunity to expand its assets thanks to an abandoned fiber loop. The nonprofit is a broadband access and adoption facilitator that was working to build a fiber network between public buildings--including government offices, schools and hospitals--in the northeast Ohio region.

"We actually were founded largely based around the donation of dark fiber. It was a telecom provider that really didn't have operations here," said Scot Rourke, president and CEO of OneCommunity. "So in 2004 we got a reasonably large footprint donated to us from a telecom carrier that had assets but really no operations here ... and then we picked up much of the maintenance. So that saved them money, and in some cases you can even get a tax deduction by donating what is a taxable asset to a nonprofit."

That first fiber ring boosted OneCommunity from a philanthropic organization working to close the digital divide to a bona fide provider of middle-mile network services to government, education and healthcare facilities in the state.

Since that first donation of unused fiber, OneCommunity has completed six similar deals and expanded its 10 Gbps middle-mile network to about 1,400 route miles, with a footprint stretching between Toledo, Columbus, and Youngstown, Ohio. The nonprofit serves more than 2,000 public sector customers and is on track to add 1,000 more, and increase its route miles to nearly 2,200, by 2013.

OneCommunity network

OneCommunity's northeast Ohio network.

Tracking assets: Where did all this fiber come from?

The telecom boom-and-bust of the mid-2000s produced more than a few fiber graveyards. Enthusiastic carriers and other service providers invested in networks, but the expected gold rush of customers didn't materialize.

Scot Rourke, OneCommunity

Rourke

"There's an interesting alignment that needs to happen between network, software and hardware, and for adoption to really happen all three need to be in sync or it doesn't work," said Rourke. "The fiber was great, but there was no software yet that demanded it, and hence you didn't even need the hardware yet. All three of those needed to line up to be ready. So that's why it took until now for fiber to become mission-critical in the United States."

While many assets were bought up and used by surviving service providers--Global Crossing, for example, which was just itself snapped up by Level 3 Communications (Nasdaq: LVLT)--some fiber routes lay abandoned.

"Look at a company like Adelphia, which spent I don't know how many hundreds of millions of dollars putting a fiber network in and a good chunk of that stuff is just sitting abandoned in Denver and other major metropolitan areas," said Vince Jordan of Ridgeview Solutions, a consultant to the city of Longmont, Colo.

Even providers that buy assets aren't always certain that they have a complete inventory of the networks they're gaining, he said.

"The company you're buying assets from has old maps that haven't been updated in a long time, don't have a central repository explaining where these various assets are. And you end up, unless you create a workforce to go out and actually verify where these assets are and what assets are available, you have no idea where stuff really is," Jordan said.

Jordan estimated that the amount of fiber assets sitting unused around the country was worth somewhere in the millions, if not billions, of dollars. But Rourke's estimates are much higher.

"My data shows in the '90s there was $3 trillion--with a 'T'--$3 trillion spent on fiber buildouts after dereg, fueled by excitement about the Internet," said Rourke. "And then many of those companies, at the tech bust, didn't have any customers signed up, and the Internet boom didn't really happen."

Digging up unused fiber

So, how would an organization or a municipality rediscover fiber, if there is any, in their area? While companies like Level 3 Communications (NYSE: LVLT) say they have a complex asset tracking system in place that enables it to monitor and maintain its network inventory, many older, now-defunct companies did not have such detailed tracking in place.

Both Rourke and Jordan point to rights of way as the first clue to locating dark fiber assets.

"Anybody who built fiber, either buried or aerial, would have had to get build permits and right of way permits to build in an area," Jordan said. "That would probably be the best place for a city, anyway, to go research this and try and figure out where facilities might be. Because a lot of times calling the guys who own it, you won't even get the right answer. But those right of way records are there, someplace. They had to have gotten those permits to either trench or hang aerial."

Cities and other groups looking for unused assets often find themselves exploring old buildings or crawling through sewers to find old cabinets.

OneCommunity leverages its connections and knowledge of the telecom community to find people who might know where old fiber assets are buried. "Anyone that went bankrupt, we looked at their assets, we were able to get copies, whether it was from former employees, or from people that, you know, were in asset sales, marketing assets. Some we just knew because they were in the market but were no longer in the market, and we saw their name on their assets when we were down in the sewers."

And once a dark fiber asset is found, there's the task of convincing the owner to give it up--which sometimes includes convincing the owner that the asset exists at all.

"I could give you real-world examples here in Longmont, where they called the carrier and the carrier said ‘No, I don't have anything,' and in fact they did," said Jordan. "They just didn't know that they had anything. And if you can't get them to come out and look, your answer is no."

Other companies are more receptive; Rourke said OneCommunity's negotiations with an area utility were very fruitful. "They gave us several million dollars worth of fiber to a couple of different cities. That was really useful. And they had excess capacity, they didn't know what to do with the fiber. They were laying electric lines and were astute enough to lay fiber next to it while the hole was open."

Jordan said that there is likely enough abandoned fiber across the United States to make a reality series of the hunt. "I was joking with Craig (Settles) that I'm going to start a reality TV show called 'Fiber Hunter' and just go down manholes in major cities and go find fiber that's been abandoned by these telcos that have come and gone the last two decades, and figure out ways for people to take advantage of it."

Repurposing fiber networks for consumer use: muni or middle mile?

Municipal broadband networks have been put forward as one way for smaller cities to bring in higher speed broadband than incumbent carriers or cable companies can provide. And finding and repurposing dormant fiber can save those cities a lot of money in initial installation costs.

But the concept has sparked plenty of controversy around the country, and spurred legislation in at least 18 states to curb or ban muni broadband.

Muni broadband restriction

Source:"Publicly Owned Broadband Networks: Averting the Looming Broadband Monopoly," March 2011, via muninetworks.org.

Such legislative issues tend to put the idea of repurposing dark fiber in the back seat as far as municipal fiber priorities go. But some communities are moving forward despite the resistance.

In 1997, Longmont, a city near Boulder with a population of about 80,000, installed a $1.1 million, 18-mile fiber loop, paid for by the Platte River Power Authority, to connect its municipal buildings. But the loop was underused for almost a decade and a half. That's about to change, thanks to a years-long push by municipal fiber advocates to put the city's fiber loop to use.

Vince Jordan

Jordan

"Those laws can generally be overthrown by local votes," said Vince Jordan, who directed the campaign to repurpose the fiber loop. "So for the last two years, we launched two campaigns, one in 2009 and the second in 2011, and we got a ballot issue on to overthrow the law."

The campaign was opposed by area franchise holder Comcast, which had succeeded in defeating the ballot issue two years earlier. "Comcast spent, in the first round, about $245,000 to fight us, and we (Longmont's residents, who funded the campaign) spent about $95 I think in 2009," said Jordan. "And last year they spent over $250,000, we got up to about $3,000, but we won last time, we lost in 2009 but we won in 2011. So now, all the fiber in Longmont that the city owns and operates is available to the residents and businesses as well as for city and educational purposes which it's been used for in the past."

Jordan argues that municipalities are a better option for rural communities because "they can take a 10-15 year payback view of any investment they make in infrastructure in their community where the incumbents or the little guys or anybody else is looking for a three to five-year view. ...When you're looking for that three to five-year hit, the money dictates what kind of investment you're going to make, who's going to get connectivity, what level of connectivity you're going to get."

The middle mile concept

Meanwhile in Ohio, Scot Rourke and the nonprofit he co-founded, OneCommunity, is working to finalize a backhaul deal with an unnamed mobile carrier.

"My biggest customers right now are the county governments and the hospitals; my biggest customer next year will be a 4G provider," Rourke said.

It's made possible by the organization's wholesale arm, which allows carriers, particularly Tier 2 providers, to lease its open-access network.

OneCommunity takes a different tack from that of municipal broadband advocates. Rather than selling directly to residential and business customers, the organization focuses on building and maintaining its 10 Gbps middle-mile network. While the organization does accept donations and has received broadband stimulus grants, much of its earnings come from its wholesale segment, which it uses to fund maintenance and expansion of the network as well as continuing its digital divide programs, such as a current program that teaches members of 20,000 households in the area how to use the Internet.

"We only directly serve the public interest sites; we do not serve consumers directly for a fee, nor do we serve businesses." Rourke also points out that sharing the network goes both ways. "On the flip side, we also leverage their assets a lot. ... We're Time Warner's biggest customer in northern Ohio. We work very hard not to duplicate their assets; most of our new construction is in rural areas where there is no fiber."

Rourke, of course, is an advocate of the neutral middle-mile concept, seeing it as a way to avoid most of the pitfalls of municipal broadband.

"If you look at the best models in the world, the government does build the middle mile, and then they open it up to local ISPs to do what I call the retail business of it," he said.

A real savings?

Communities looking for cost-effective ways to get higher speeds than the federal government's recommended minimum speed of 3 Mbps would likely be interested in finding and relighting already-in-place fiber networks. But how viable is this option?

The age of the fiber--more than a decade in many cases--shouldn't be a real problem, said Paul Savill, SVP of transport and data services for Level 3 Communications. "The fiber out there typically still has a lot of life left to it. So if you're implying that fiber that was put into the ground 10-20 years ago, that's really not a concern." Still, he added, "There's a lot of different fiber construction techniques. Some are not as reliable and you see a lot more degradation. You see that a lot with fiber that's hung on telephone poles, what we call OPGW (Optical Ground Wire) fiber. But that's pretty rare to have fiber degrade so much that you can't use it."

Jordan thinks that in addition to the $3.5 billion in funds the government has handed out to build new networks, it should look into funding a search for forgotten fiber loops. "You know, as much as the government is happy to fund new fiber builds all over the place, they could fund a little company to go out and find abandoned fiber assets and figure out how to get them into circulation, get them into use," he said.

It's an option that both government and private service providers should look into. Rourke, whose OneCommunity has invested about $15 million so far to build the core equipment for its 1,400-route mile network, said that repurposing fiber allows communities to spend less time worrying about how to pay for a network build and more time concentrating on how best to use its assets. He also believes that greater availability of high-speed broadband has far-reaching economic benefits that ultimately benefit the cable companies and telcos that currently oppose municipal efforts.

"Especially in an economy like ours, that's manufacturing-centric, you have two choices: You can compete for a shrinking piece of the pie, or you can make a bigger pie and then it's a lot more interesting," he said. "Some of those guys think we're competitive, but the smart executives know that we're building a bigger pie and it's creating more opportunities than not."