Gigabit Cities

Gigabit Net Builders Share Lessons Learned

Its recent political travails may stymie its tech growth going forward, but North Carolina is justified today in claiming the Gigabit State title, based on how much gigabit activity is ongoing in that state and the fact that it is essentially a microcosm of what is happening elsewhere, in terms of business models.

There are cities, such as Salisbury and Wilson, which have built their own fiber networks. There are fortunate spots, such as Charlotte and Durham, where commercial companies are building fiber: Charlotte has both AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and Google Fiber Inc. , and Durham has Frontier now, with AT&T and Google on the way. North State Communications is building out fiber in about eight communities in the Piedmont region, including Greensboro, High Point and Thomasville.

And there are public-private consortia springing up, led by munis and education partners that are creating regional gigabit footprints and contracting with private operators to build gig networks. The biggest is North Carolina Next Gen Network, uniting Raleigh, Durham, Winston-Salem, Chapel Hill, Cary and Carboro, along with four universities, and the newest is Tri-Gig, pulling together Greensboro, High Point, Burlington and Guilford County, along with higher education institutions as well.

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And this is not just a metro fiber state. MCNC, a broadband nonprofit group, is building and operating the North Carolina Research and Education Network (NCREN).

Panel of Experts
Leading the discussion at left is Light Reading Cable Practice Leader Alan Breznick, joined by (left to right), Colman Keane of EBP; Jane Nickles, Greensboro CIO; Jeff Stoval, Charlotte CIO; Kent Winrich of Fibrant and Light Reading Senior Editor Mari Silbey.
Leading the discussion at left is Light Reading Cable Practice Leader Alan Breznick, joined by (left to right), Colman Keane of EBP; Jane Nickles, Greensboro CIO; Jeff Stoval, Charlotte CIO; Kent Winrich of Fibrant and Light Reading Senior Editor Mari Silbey.

Almost every one of these efforts was represented by a speaker at Light Reading's Gigabit Cities event this week, as was the pioneering gig network in Chattanooga, EPB Fiber Optics , and major cable players Cox Communications Inc. and Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK). So it's no wonder there were many notable insights shared, including:

  • Models for cooperation are evolving: When Salisbury decided it wanted a fiber-to-the-premises network, it found incumbents weren't interested in building it, even if the city paid them to, said Kent A. Winrich, director of broadband and infrastructure. In fact, the protests of incumbents got quite heated and produced one of the statewide bills against municipal networks that the FCC sought to strike down last year, an effort that is currently facing a court battle. Most of today's networks, however, are either incumbent efforts or the outgrowth of consortia that sought ISP help. Jane Nickles, CIO of the City of Greensboro, was pleasantly surprised that AT&T and North State were interested in working with the Tri-Gig alliance, she said. That's not to say everyone is happy, and there are still concerns with the "level playing field," as multiple incumbent providers called it, but gigabit is moving forward at a fast pace.

  • This isn't just about faster Internet access: All of the cities involved have greater plans for economic development, education, public safety and more. "It will change the way we work," Nickles said. "The cities that don't have it are going to get left behind. This is the future." The CIOs and CTOs involved admit they face challenges in conveying the broader message to city leaders, however. And that's an issue because their efforts aren't one-and-done, but will require ongoing investment and maintenance. "Cities love to build things; they hate to maintain things," admitted Charlotte CIO Jeff Stovall.

  • And it's not just the network that's needed. Data center infrastructure is another key element. And that's even harder to sell to city leaders, Stovall said, because "it has to be the least sexy part of any operation." So getting funding for the compute and storage power required to handle and process the big data/analytics needed for things such as smart traffic management is a challenge going forward. Fibrant, the gigabit network in Salisbury, has taken an innovative approach to that challenge, building its own data center infrastructure and reselling services, as a revenue generator, says. It also operates a warm data center backup for the city's gigabit network. In Chattanooga, EPB is pressing a distributed data center strategy that locates the infrastructure where there is available power, close to where it's needed, said Colman Keane, director of fiber optic technology.

  • Is network sharing the next great frontier? Jean Davis, president and CEO of MCNC, believes the generation which adopted the sharing economy could help push the network sharing economy as well. Her organization is encouraging operators to use its middle-mile network, which traverses much of the state, as part of a push for distance learning, telemedicine and more.

— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading

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