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Fiber to the People

Light Reading
News Analysis
Light Reading
6/22/2000

Optical networking isn't usually considered a do-it-yourself job. But a growing number of organizations are rebelling against that notion.

Fighting the idea that telecom carriers are the only ones qualified to build optical networks and run them for customers, these fiber rebels have found that if they obtain unlit "dark fiber" from a range of sources, they can use it to design their own networks to use as they see fit.

Take the case of the Netera Alliance Inc. http://www.netera.ca, a nonprofit consortium that built NeteraNet, a 370-kilometer gigabit fiberoptic Internet link built for its members and a selected group of educational facilities in Alberta, Canada. According to Ken Hewitt, president of the alliance, the consortium had to negotiate strenuously to obtain a three-year contract for two strands on a 72-strand fiber bundle owned by a local cable company.

"It was a tough conversation," he recalls. "Neither cable companies nor telcos want to provide dark fiber." He notes that even carriers who are members of the alliance, such as Telus http://www.telus.com, would rather provide service to their customers on their own terms - designing the network themselves and charging premium rates for specific services.

Another group, the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation http://www.ocri.com, faced similar challenges when it decided to build a fiberoptic network from scratch. The OCRI ganged up with a bunch of government agencies, school boards, technology companies, and universities in Ottawa in order to form a consortium to get the attention of service providers. They also hired a consultant to estimate the cost of laying fiber themselves. Finally, the group got a deal for dark fiber from a regional Competitive Local Exchange Carrier (CLEC)--one that members say wouldn't have materialized if they hadn't joined together and priced the job themselves.

Elsewhere, governments are bringing their weight to bear in convincing fiber owners to loosen their grip on the goods. In Chicago, for instance, a project called Civicnet is underway to create a fiberoptic network for the city's use. According to Joel Mambretti, who works on the committee overseeing the project, talks are focused on encouraging owners of municipal fiber, including telcos and utility companies, to cooperate in "provisioning that fiber to wider communities," not just commercial resellers. He won't specify the nature of the talks, which are expected to result in the launch of work on Civicnet within two months.

If fighting for fiber is a challenge to consortia and government bodies, it's clearly not a task for small or medium-sized companies. In fact, it can be a minefield for the unwary. "Dark fiber leasing is a very complex proposition. If you are betting the farm you'd better know what you're doing," says Walt Sapronov, partner in the law firm of Gerry, Friend, and Sapronov, which has become an authority on telecom transactions and regulations.

For starters, he says, "you need to know what you're purchasing--what is dark fiber service? Capacity? A strand? Bandwidth? Then you need to know the rights you are acquiring. Are you getting a leasehold? Sharing with others? Getting a nonrevokable lease? There are all sorts of implications… accounting, tax treatment, rights to continue to use the fiber in the event the lessor merges or is sold." Not surprisingly, Sapronov recommends a good lawyer as the first step in any dark fiber deal.

For all the service providers unwilling to part with precious infrastructure, there are some who recognize--and are profiting from--the growing popularity of dark fiber. Among these are Metromedia Fiber Network Inc. http://www.mmfn.com, a dark fiber reseller that reported 73 percent growth for its first quarter this year.

-- by Mary Jander, senior editor, Light Reading http://www.lightreading.com

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