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Providing the last leg of gigabit Internet without fiber

Getting to gigabit Internet without fiber

Gigabit Internet over fiber-optic cable came to my neighborhood six months ago.  And though I’m paying more than I’d like to for the service, I’m a happy camper. 

But I live in Seattle, a densely packed, high-tech city.  What about all the smaller communities that want to support local business and residents with gigabit Internet but don’t have enough customers to tempt private-sector companies into laying fiber?  

Santa Cruz, Calif., like a number of other smaller communities around the country decided to move to municipal broadband, with the city providing the infrastructure and partnering with a private-sector partner to deliver the services. According to J. Guevara, the city’s economic development manager, there was, however, an additional problem to solve: The city couldn’t get underground fiber all the way to customers quickly enough.

Santa Cruz’s solution was to turn to a network of millimeter-wave radios to deliver the last leg of service at gigabit speeds.  Partnering with Siklu Communications, which makes the radios, and Cruzio, the local Internet service provider, the city will position radios in 17 locations throughout the city, primarily on rooftops, to deliver gigabit speeds to customers.

Guevara stresses that the solution is a temporary one -- for two reasons.  “First, obviously we’re going to run out of rooftop space,” he said. “You can’t do that through the whole city.” 

The other limitation is that, in addition to have relatively limited range, millimeter-wave radios are sensitive to weather conditions. Noting that public services can’t rely on connectivity that may be erratic during bad weather, Guevara said, “the millimeter wave is a really strong redundancy, but not necessarily the primary means to serve the entire city, especially for public safety.”

And indeed, the city plans to lay fiber-optic cables in stages to eventually create a 100-percent underground network.  To that end, the city is proposing a 30-year lease-revenue bond to provide the fiber infrastructure.  The city is responsible for building the dark fiber Layer 1 network, and Cruzio handles the Layer 2 electronics, the Layer 3 Internet backhaul and providing the actual service, Guevara said. 

In the meantime, Guevara said, the wireless radios provide “a taste of what fiber at gigabit speeds feels like” for community and government services.

The city is planning a 12-week rollout of the hybrid network that will begin before the end of the month. “It’s a great role for municipal government to fill that gap in an inefficient marketplace,” he added.  When the fiber-optic network is complete, the city will have “50 years or more of quality infrastructure.  And from what we know, fiber is still future proof.” 

Guevara noted that Chattanooga, Tenn., which recently began to offer 10-gigabit Internet to customers, only had to switch out the electronics because it had already built out a fiber-optic infrastructure.  “Once that glass is in the ground, you are good for all the amazing stuff that we can’t even predict,” he said.

That’s why Guevara sees the city’s deployment of millimeter-wave wireless as a short-term, but invaluable, solution.  “Logging into millimeter wave is great for lowering costs in the early rollout, but it’s not the best, conservative infrastructure choice,” he said.  “It’s a great technology that can reduce costs and can get you into the areas that don’t make sense for fiber.”

This column was changed April 27 to correct Chattanooga's Internet speed.

Posted by Patrick Marshall on Apr 26, 2016 at 7:09 AM


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