Washington, D.C., might finish its 100 gigabits-per-second fiber network ahead of schedule, the district’s CTO told Government Technology this week. But to fully realize the potential of the blazing-fast network, Rob Mancini is hoping Internet service providers (ISPs) decide to utilize the district’s middle-mile capacity ahead of the project’s 2013 deadline.

Installation of the fiber network, called the DC Community Access Network (DC-CAN), began this year year. So far, 24 anchor sites — public health-care clinics, charter schools and other institutions — have been connected and 37 miles of fiber have been laid, Mancini said. When completed, the network will have 173 miles of fiber and is expected to connect to 223 sites within the entire district.

“I’d like to see us get done by the end of September 2013,” Mancini said. “If we keep going at the rate we are, we should make that.”

The deadline is important in order to fulfill grant obligations attached to $17.5 million in federal stimulus money that’s funding the project. The fiber network’s total cost is $25 million.

The network’s aim is to help bring broadband to underserved areas, but officials also anticipate that it will make possible new government applications. Already, the district has started connecting sites in areas east of the Anacostia River where broadband adoption rates are less than 40 percent, according to an announcement this month from Mancini’s office. The project is managed by the District Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCTO) DC-Net program.

ISPs Needed

The network’s 100 gigabits-per-second capability could be hundreds of times faster than what’s available to the typical U.S. household. But to make the network readily available to residents, Washington, D.C., still needs Internet service providers to come aboard and build out “last-mile” connectivity to homes and businesses. If it happens, the project will reap big dividends, Mancini said.

The district is currently in talks with Verizon, Comcast and other ISPs, Mancini said, but it may take more time before any agreements are made. “They haven’t signed on the dotted line yet, but they continue to come and look at our services and go back and evaluate,” he added.

Mancini said it’s important for the district to partner with ISPs instead of competing with them. He’d like ISPs to join the network and lease access at a special rate. The district expects that arrangement to cut infrastructure costs for ISPs; it also expects ISPs to pass on those savings to consumers in the form of lower prices for broadband access. The city won’t enforce specific pricing, however.

“I think we should give [ISPs] the flexibility — what represents enough of a reduced margin for them to make it worthwhile,” Mancini said. “So rather than dictate the price to the home, we’re encouraging it.”

Mancini said he’d like to see the providers participating by the end of June 2012. Coming to agreements that the district and the ISPs can both adhere to is a delicate process, he conceded. If the ISPs haven’t made a decision by mid-2012, Mancini said he plans to inquire again about why they don’t want to take part on the network.

Keys to Success

Mancini said the network’s rollout has been successful so far. Washington, D.C., has been helped by at least one big advantage (besides the stimulus).

“The biggest problem in other cities is that they don’t have rights of way underneath the roadway, underneath the ground in their city. And that’s why we’re able to do what we do,” Mancini said. “We have the right of way; we have conduit.”

In the beginning stages of the DC-CAN project, Mancini said the district’s biggest challenge was procuring fiber.

“Everybody was trying to buy fiber last year and there was a supply issue,” Mancini said. “And that slowed us down.”

But now with project well under way, Mancini said the network is expected to not only help with closing the digital divide, but also to assist the district’s public safety agencies build out applications and products that can be run on the network.

Mancini’s GIS team is planning to develop capability for citizens in the area to send video data directly through the network from mobile devices to the district’s public safety agencies. Mancini said, for example, a resident could send the information directly to a police department — while also including the GIS coordinates — so the nearest police car could respond to the scene within seconds.

Conversation Starter: Is your city or county installing a fiber network? What challenges have you experienced along the way?

Sarah Rich, Staff Writer Sarah Rich  |  Staff Writer

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. Since 2010, Sarah has written for Government Technology magazine and covers a spectrum of public-sector IT topics, including cloud computing, transparency, broadband, and other innovative projects and trends. She currently lives in Sacramento, Calif.