Fiber from NOVA to Nashville
- By Stephanie Kanowitz
- Feb 10, 2020
To support multiple initiatives to increase broadband access across the commonwealth, the Virginia Transportation Department (VDOT) and fiber optics firm Osprey Communications signed a resource sharing agreement (RSA) for a multi-conduit fiber-optic system.
RSAs enable companies to partner with VDOT to lay fiber along limited-access rights-of-way -- freeways and interstates -- in exchange for cash, goods or services. Announced last month, this particular agreement calls for Osprey to build six to seven underground conduits in the limited-access right-of-way along the I-81 and I-66 corridors.
Each conduit will handle 288 standard-size fibers and 432 nonstandard fibers, giving it a “dramatic amount” of scalability, Osprey CEO Paul Elswick said. VDOT will use some of those conduits -- a nondisclosure agreement protects the exact number -- for communications across its five transportation operations centers (TOCs) and assets and devices such as traffic cameras, electronic message signs and other traffic management and control technologies.
“That requires some pretty significant communications resources, which in the past has been almost entirely over leased communication services, but we have a master plan that talks about how to establish communications to those devices and ultimately become less reliant on those leased services because they’re certainly expensive,” said VDOT's Ken Earnest, assistant division administrator at the Operations Division, which is responsible for the fiber optic resource sharing program. “The plan really deals with fiber optics and how we expand our fiber-optic network capabilities to those devices, how we provide for redundancy and how we also interconnect our various facilities like the TOCs.”
A main benefit of fiber optics to VDOT is cost savings because it eliminates the need for leased circuits, which can cost $300 to $500 per traffic camera along a rural corridor. “The camera locations really drive our desire to get off of those leased circuits, but then we also have some major circuits that go from our operations facilities back to data centers, where some of our applications and systems are hosted, and those leased circuits can be expensive as well” -- several thousand dollars per month, Earnest said.
Other benefits of fiber optics include better cybersecurity and bandwidth, which he said futureproofs VDOT as the internet of things and connected and autonomous vehicle adoption expands.
“One of the things that’s really important to us is making sure that we have that backbone in place, which is what the resource sharing program is really helping us to develop," said Cathy McGhee, VDOT's director of research and innovation.
"As the connectivity between the vehicles and the infrastructure and vehicle and vehicle becomes more widespread, the need for that backbone is going to only grow,” she said. “We’re really working hard to make sure we understand the implications of that technology and are ready to fully benefit from it -- and developing this fiber backbone is a piece of that.”
The agency won’t cut off leased circuits as soon as the fiber-optic backbone is in place, Earnest said. “That would be an evolutionary process,” he said. “There would be a time when we would have both up and running, and once we validate that we have a robust, reliable, redundant network, then we would decommission more of those leased circuits.”
The RSA program began in 1998, but interest has grown in recent years, spurred on by broadband stimulus funding from the Obama administration and a settlement between Virginia and tobacco companies. What’s more, Loudoun County in Northern Virginia sits at the “heart of the internet,” and “all of the providers are trying to get to those data centers, so our limited access routes become very attractive,” Earnest said.
What’s different about the RSA with Osprey, he said, is the types of things VDOT will get. Whereas the agency typically gets fiber strands as part of the backbone from RSAs, it negotiated for an empty conduit along the entire route to use fiber assets it may install in the future. Additionally, Osprey will integrate existing and future devices along the corridors into the backbone.
The department’s efforts are separate from but in line with the statewide Virginia Telecommunication Initiative to bring broadband connectivity to rural areas. Gov. Ralph Northam announced last month more than $18.4 million in grants to support projects. His proposed budget adds $16 million a year to the $19 million allocated annually last year, bringing the total investment to $35 million each year to further expand broadband.
VDOT stands ready to support that effort, too, by sharing excess its fiber to with other government entities such as libraries or schools, McGhee said.
Osprey will take the remaining fiber supply to support the private sector, said Elswick, who estimates it will take about a year for the buildout, which will run from Haymarket, Va., to Nashville.
“This long-haul fiber will get access to the Tier I internet feeds for communities all along the route, so eventually a lot of rural Virginia will be served because of this project,” he said. “We gain potentially [in] the private arena and they gain the public-sector asset they need. Plus, they get the benefits of our expertise in building it, so it’s a win-win for everybody.”
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.