fiber cable (alphaspirit/Shutterstock.com)

Is it time to light up dark fiber?

Next month, internet speeds in Jackson, Miss., will go from 1 gigabit to 100 gigabit as part of the city’s work to light up dark fiber -- the cables that are in place, but not yet used, or “lit.”

“What we’ve talked about is an economic model based on the inherent dignity of every citizen in the city of Jackson, and we see high-speed networks as an enterprise of dignity in the 21st century," said Robert Blaine, the city’s chief administrative officer.  The city wants to reduce the opportunity gaps across various segments of the community, he said, and “we see access to information as being a foundational piece.”

That’s why after taking office 13 months ago, Blaine began setting up a plan to make better use of the robust fiber-optic network the city owned. First, he and his team set up a partnership with Cogent Communications and LiteCloud, which helped with the infrastructure and construction of the new network, expected to launch in January 2019. Four months later, the city will do a formal unveiling during TECH Jackson, a three-day event that stands for technology, education, creativity and health care -- the four sectors of the city’s economy on which the network effort focuses, Blaine said.

The effort is three-pronged. The first focuses on connecting the city’s 26 public schools and about 18 libraries to an ultra-high-speed network.

The second will grow the network to connect Jackson’s seven higher learning institutions and four hospital systems.

“One of the projects that we were looking at to start next year was a partnership with the University of Mississippi Medical Center that focused on availability of health care for students that come from families that don’t have access to health care,” Blaine said. “Because students that come from families without access to health care miss twice as much school as students in families with access, "our pilot with the University of Mississippi Medical Center is to bring telemedicine to four [Jackson Public Schools] elementary schools.”

The third part of the project aims to fuel economic development, in part by attracting tech startups to hang their shingles in town and in part by retaining the talent already studying at universities in the city.

Dark fiber’s origins

During the dot-com boom of the 1990s, companies installed many miles of fiber-optic cables. Because it’s expensive to install, most owners tended to lay multiple strands, saving some for later usage. But after the bust in the early 2000s, many went bankrupt or merged, said Jonathan Ajo-Franklin, geophysics department head at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Energy Geosciences Division. At the same time, communications technology advanced, increasing the amount of data that could be packed onto a single fiber by two or three orders of magnitude, he said.

“The combination of the oversupply in fibers and then the fact that you could put a lot more data on them meant that for a period of time there were a lot of spare fibers in the ground,” Ajo-Franklin said.

Cost is the biggest appeal to government agencies considering using dark fiber, said Shawn McCarthy, research director at IDC Government Insights.

“You could lease dark fiber at a set price for X number of years usually, whereas if you go through a telecom carrier, they may have a refresh clause along the way to make price adjustments,” McCarthy said.

But there are other factors to consider. For one, using dark fiber isn’t straightforward. Buying and managing fiber requires a skillset many agencies don’t have.

“You and I if we want to improve the bandwidth that goes to our house, we just go to the carrier we’re already working with and ask for a larger package,” McCarthy said. “But if you are somebody who’s really into heavy bandwidth usage like the government -- Department of Energy or something that’s boosting bandwidth to all of its research facilities-- they have the skillset to buy dark fiber and use it, in some ways, the same way that a carrier would.”

The General Services Administration’s Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions Dark Fiber Service (DFS) aims to facilitate federal agencies’ acquisition of dark fiber. DFS “is an optical fiber infrastructure that consists of cabling, repeaters, and customer-provided transport light,” according to a GSA service guide. Once acquired, DFS networks are controlled by the agency, secured and customized for its connectivity needs.

At the state and local level, some cities are seeking to increase revenues by selling access to the broadband networks they own. Last year, San Francisco officials approved a plan to build a dual-fiber network with both lit and dark fiber that the city would own but would contract out for network services. It could generate $1.3 million in ongoing savings, according to a May policy report to the city's board of supervisors.

“In addition, the network has the potential to generate significant economic returns, including higher property valuations, lower prices for broadband service, increased business development, more efficient energy consumption, and job growth,” the report stated. “In addition to selling internet connectivity, the network could be leased to other customers, such as wireless providers or advertisers, generating additional revenue. It could also enable new types of government services and private industry that enhance the well-being of San Franciscans.”

In Virginia, five cities -- Virginia Beach, Suffolk, Portsmouth, Norfolk and Chesapeake -- have invested in an initiative to implement a 103.11-mile, open access, dark fiber Regional Connectivity Ring through the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission. Each city will have a network operations center to manage its part of the ring. The $28 million project uses transatlantic fiber capabilities, sets a foundation for smart city and internet-of-things development in the connected cities, uses analytics to iteratively improve local projects and create efficiency through last-mile analytics. It also gives easier access to high-speed broadband to under- or unserved areas, according to an October 2018 document on the project.

In planning for the network, the commission said it “is purposefully designed with excess strands of fiber, well beyond what the Cities and higher education institutions will need for internal use,” according to an Oct. 31, 2017 document. “The network was designed to pass through a number of key economic development areas. If the Cities build and operate the network themselves, they can use the availability of affordable dark fiber services to help attract new companies to these priority areas.”

Success is not guaranteed, however. California’s Santa Monica CityNet, a fiber network that became the first 100 gigabit municipal network in the country in 2014, has been leasing dark fiber since 2006. So far, CityNet overall has signed up less than 2 percent of the business market and collected about $2.1 million in revenue – usage a March New York Law School report called “tepid.”

McCarthy also has reservations about this model: “I’m not a super big fan of that because when cities start selling their network bandwidth, it puts them in the role of being an ISP,” he said.

Staying power

Still, dark fiber has staying power -- at least for now, McCarthy said. One driver of its use is cloud computing. “When you’re getting all of your computing over the cloud and over the network rather than getting it from the mainframe down the hall, that requires more bandwidth,” he said.

But dark fiber could see competition as bandwidth demand continues to fall to the block-by-block level as cities get “smarter” and 5G wireless communications roll out. To offer the fastest wireless speeds, cities are deploying small cell installations, which include radio equipment and antennas placed every few blocks instead of miles apart, according to CTIA, which represents the U.S. wireless communications industry. The number of these will grow from 13,000 in 2017 to more than 800,000 by 2026, CITA predicted.

What’s more, the concept of turning things on when you need them is available for other solutions, too, such as microwave networks, McCarthy added.

Perhaps dark fiber’s strength will come not through connectivity but other uses.  At the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, Ajo-Franklin is using dark fiber to measure seismic signals -- an idea someone floated by him after he and his team had laid fiber in Alaska for such measurements.

“Usually people are using fiber-optic underground, even dark fiber, for communications, for getting data back from one place to the other, but for the last five or six years, we’ve been working on different technologies which allow you to make distributed measurements of things like the seismic wave field or the temperature or strain using the same kind of fibers that are used for communication,” he said. “That means if you’ve got an unused fiber for a telecom network, maybe you can use it for sensing, too.”

To do it, Ajo-Franklin worked with the Energy Sciences Network, which created a dark fiber testbed after buying 13,000 miles of dark fiber from a commercial provider. He and his team got access to a section of the dark fiber network between West Sacramento and Calusa, Calif., and collected about 300 terabytes of data during their seven-month experiment.

The main benefit of using dark fiber for this work, Ajo-Franklin said, is cost savings. Collecting an equivalent amount of data without dark fiber requires thousands of point sensors called geophones that can cost $100 apiece. Then, those sensors must be connected to recording systems. 

“In this case, we’re replacing that huge array of thousands of individual point sensors, which have to be deployed, with just using the single piece of fiber, which is already there in the ground,” he said.

What’s more, dark fiber can be used for other measurements. “You can use the fibers to make temperature measurements. That’s interesting to people looking to monitor the health of their network,” he said. “Another thing is you can measure vibrations that can help understand things such as infrastructure -- the number of cars that use a section of road. Depending on what kind of application you’re interested in, there are a lot of different things you can do with the fiber once you start recording.”

In Jackson, dark fiber is a stepping-stone to the city’s goal of becoming an intelligent city -- one that does more than use smart technology, Blaine said. “We want a city that learns on itself, essentially building a city that is a learning organism,” he said. “Our goal is that we don’t simply have smart technologies, but we build the infrastructure to actually leverage the technologies to learn upon the system itself.”

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