The sidewalks of New York will go digital

The sidewalks of New York will go digital

By Trudy Walsh

GCN Staff

New York City spent most of the 19th century building the Brooklyn Bridge. Now the city needs a digital bridge to the 21st century, and fast. That translates to a pervasive web of fiber-optic cables.

But where to put them?

New York City CIO Allan Dobrin is pioneering the use of an alternative fiber-optic conduit.

'In Manhattan, there's no more room to build anything,' said Allan H. Dobrin, commissioner of the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DOITT) and chief information officer of New York City. Other cities, such as San Francisco and Washington, D.C., have installed underground fiber-optic cable by tearing up the streets. But New York was wary of upsetting the already delicate equilibrium of its crowded streets.

The city's existing data cables run inside conduits above the sewer system, said Lenny Cherson, assistant to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani for administration, technology and telecommunications. In November, City Hall's telephone system crashed. Officials from Bell Atlantic Corp., which handles City Hall's twisted-pair and coaxial voice networks, took Cherson down under the manhole covers to show him what had happened.

'It was a mess,' Cherson said. 'Manhattan is just bursting at the seams. Everybody has conduits down there now, and it's hard to tell who's who. The cables are different colors, but you have to rub away the grime to even see the color.'

All around the town

One of the city's IT strategies is to expand CityNet, the data communications backbone that provides TCP/IP connections to 50,000 desktop systems in 40 agencies. CityNet also links to an OC-48 Synchronous Optical Network backbone called the Institutional Network, or I-Net, which provides videoconferencing services to the four boroughs, the Board of Education's citywide training network and the city's judicial system.

But once again, officials who want to expand the city's network run into the same question: where?

Dobrin and other city officials, hoping to find a better system, met with an urban planning group from Japan. 'In Tokyo, they used their sewers as conduits for fiber-optic cable,' Dobrin said. 'We weren't too keen on that idea.'

Another idea was to run the fiber-optic cable along unused subway lines, Cherson said. One defunct line ran from East 86th Street all the way to Wall Street'a distance of more than 100 blocks.

But because of the subway traffic from active lines down there, it was too risky for the cable installers, Cherson said.

The third idea was the charm. Dobrin talked to a team from the city's Environmental Protection Department that had a plan to turn a network of unused water mains into conduits for fiber-optic cable.

Built between 1908 and 1914, about 125 miles of the empty cast iron water mains run through lower Manhattan, including the city's technology district called Silicon Alley. McClain Guthrie, spokeswoman for the city's Economic Development Corp., defined Silicon Alley as 'everything in Manhattan below 41st Street.'

Put that in your pipe

The insatiable demand for broadband fiber-optic systems and data networks in Silicon Alley is a major concern, said Elaine Reiss, deputy commissioner and general counsel for DOITT. Reiss is also concerned about the technical problems of modifying the empty water mains to support broadband networks. Fiber-optic cable, for example, can't bend 90 degrees without special coupling joints.

The city has issued a request for expressions of interest, asking the market for advice, Dobrin said. Based on the responses that DOITT receives, city officials will craft a request for proposals. Work on the new system could start by the end of the year, Dobrin said.

One to two feet in diameter, the water mains are made of two-inch-thick cast iron. They could easily hold up to 36 times the fiber-optic cable of standard four-inch conduits, city officials said. About five feet below street level, the pipes lie beneath the sidewalks, and can be accessed without interfering with street traffic.

'It's all benefit,' Dobrin said. 'The streets won't get messed up. It's cheaper, closer to the curb. It'll save us a lot of grief.'


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