Agency Award'Montgomery County, Md. | Spread the wealth

2007 GCN Award: Montgomery County, Md., cashes in on its fiber-optic network

WHAT: Fiber network installed by the Montgomery County, Md., Department of Technology Services.

MISSION: The county had its own fiber-optic network, first put in place by the Public Works and Transportation Department to control traffic signals. DTS wanted to expand the use of this network for additional county departments.

CHALLENGE: The cost of purchasing and installing Asynchronous Transfer Mode equipment at each office proved to be too costly for most departments. Use of the county network stalled.

SOLUTION: The county abandoned the ATM switching technology in favor of the less-costly Metro Ethernet implementation, which reduced the cost enough that county agencies and departments could adopt this network and cut the monthly bills from the commercial telecommunications providers.

IMPACT: The county has reduced the cost of outfitting a county office building with network access from $100,000 down to $3,000. Monthly leasing costs have been cut by less than half.

SALES PITCH: John Castner says DTS had to convince the county of fiber's benefits.

Zaid Hamid

ON A ROLL: DTS staff members rolled out Metro Ethernet last year.

Zaid Hamid

When public school officials in Montgomery County, Md., need an Internet connection, they don't call the local telecommunications company. They call the county's Department of Technology Services. And they get service at a fraction of the price a commercial service would charge.

For the complete list of the 2007 GCN Award winners, click here


The county is 'a telecommunications company,' said John Castner, manager of network services at DTS.
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'Except, we're not-for-profit,' said Barbara Garrard, who is the county's chief of enterprise infrastructure at DTS.

That's fortunate, because the county's six agencies and 20 departments have an ever-growing hunger for high-bandwidth network access. Schools are moving toward distance learning and using Web-based interactions with parents ' such as allowing parents to view school records from home. The Montgomery County court system has been using its network for remote arraignments. Instead of transporting prisoners between the detention center and the courthouse for two-minute hearings, the system allows prisoners to converse with the judges via videoconferencing equipment in the detention center. The fire, police and permitting departments have their own needs, too.

The county first considered acting as its own carrier more than a decade ago, when its Department of Public Works and Transportation acquired 500 miles of fiber-optic lines, named FiberNet, webbing the county.
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The department put in the fiber, or it came by way of licensing deals from a local cable provider, Comcast, in exchange for rights-of-way. The glass was to be used to control the timing of traffic signals, convey feeds from more than 100 traffic cameras countywide and act as a relay for the county's public-safety radio networks, ensuring the highest-priority radio transmissions got relayed.
But such communications barely tapped the bandwidth potential of the fiber in the ground.

'It became clear that there could be much broader county use, where other agencies could benefit from this connectivity,' Garrard said. So in the late 1990s, management of the fiber-optic lines was transferred to DTS.

By that time, many county buildings were starting to see requirements for high-bandwidth connectivity. Technology Services could hook county departments into this fiber-optic network, supplying data connectivity at less than half what it would cost to lease the service from a commercial carrier.

At first, uptake by other agency departments was slow. One reason: Installation costs still ran high. The county would connect the buildings through Asynchronous Transfer Mode, then a popular switching technology for fiber-based, high-bandwidth data and voice communications.

The trouble with ATM was the cost. At the time, it would cost the county anywhere from $60,000 to $100,000 to put an office building on the network. 'We got to the point where no one wanted to do this,' Castner said. 'We had fiber to these sites but no one wanted to spend the money to light them.'

Before being hired by the county, Castner had done network management for three years at a consultant company that worked for large telecom carriers. And he knew of a less expensive alternative to ATM: Metro Ethernet, which was simply the Ethernet protocols extended across a regional area. It was cheaper than ATM and also easier to work with because most network administrators knew Ethernet; few were familiar with ATM.

'We knew this stuff was in the marketplace,' Castner said. 'We just needed to convince everyone this was the right thing to do.'

The county declared a moratorium on further ATM implementations. The money earmarked for those projects was then funneled into Metro Ethernet, easily covering the cost of implementations.

Instead of a $70,000 ATM hookup, the county could pay around $3,000 to outfit a site with a Metro Ethernet link. With ATM, each site would need an integrated device to convert signals into Ethernet. With Metro Ethernet, all the county needed was a simple media converter to convert the signal between the fiber and the copper lines.

About a year ago, the county implemented the core of the Metro Ethernet network. The public middle and high schools were hooked in, and now the department is connecting other county departments, and the elementary schools.

One of the nice things about Metro Ethernet is that it allows the network to be carved into smaller networks for individual agencies using Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS). Each participating department has what appears to be its own dedicated wide-area Ethernet network, spanning most of its remote locations and branch offices in the county. This is another trick Castner picked up from the carriers, which routinely carve up their lines for many customers.

As a result of using MPLS, the network for a county college is invisible to the one for the public schools even though they may share long lengths of fiber. This division also helps the agency's departments meet the many security compliance laws, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which the county's Health Human Services Department must obey.

Using in-house fiber ensures the county will have a healthy amount of bandwidth for decades to come.

'The minimum we give any [office] is 10 megabits/sec. The backbone is 10 gigabits/sec,' Castner said, noting that the county hasn't had the need for wave-division multiplexing equipment that could boost fiber bandwidth even more. 'The capacity on the fiber is, as far as we're concerned, unlimited.'

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