Greensboro, N.C., Wants to Light Up Dark Fiber Network

Although the North Carolinia city has a $24 million fiber system, many of the residents are not able to reach Internet speeds of 1 gigabit per second.

by Richard M. Barron, News & Record, Greensboro, N.C. / October 26, 2015
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(TNS) -- When about seven years ago Greensboro engineers began installing a network of fiber-optic cables to improve traffic signals that move heavy volumes of traffic more quickly through city streets, they hardly could have imagined the potential they were unleashing.

It was the same year Apple released its first iPhone, giving every consumer a voracious taste for more and faster data.

Now, smaller and smaller devices and servers move quantities of data that may have seemed impossible a decade ago, but the general public and small businesses still have limited access to internet speeds of 1 gigabit and higher.

Greensboro's $24 million fiber system covers more than 450 intersections and, more importantly, a lot of land mass — far more than most private fiber-optic networks in Greensboro.

Guilford County, High Point, Burlington, UNC-Greensboro and N.C. A&T all operate similar fiber-optic systems for computer and traffic data as well.

Those tiny glass or plastic fibers carry digital information through light impulses, but the information uses only a fraction of the available cable. What's left is called dark fiber, and the Triad Gigabit Fiber Initiative wants to light it up.

Fiber can carry data at more than 1 gigabit per second, which is considered the gold standard for consumer internet. North State and AT&T are offering gigabit internet services to consumers in parts of their networks, but rural areas, poor areas and many that are just simply near the bottom of the schedule will have to wait for that faster service.

So what would superfast internet service of one gigabit per second or more mean?

For businesses, it would allow executives to use video to hold remote meetings without the glitches that seem to come with such hookups, businesses could work on projects simultaneously in real time using massive data that would have been impossible before.

Many businesses are already linked with such service.

The consumer is another story. "Fiber to home" service is rare. Connecting individual homes to large fiber cables is more expensive. But the consumer would see dramatic change.

Google, which offers fiber service in a few cities, says that a consumer can stream five high-definition videos at the same time and have bandwidth left to email and surf the web or download a 14 GB digital movie in under 2 minutes.

Now the local governments and universities want to package this public fiber and work with internet service companies to expand ultra high-speed internet across the region and take even basic service where it hasn't been before.

That could improve education at home and at school, keep young college graduates from leaving Greensboro and stimulate small businesses that might otherwise leave town to seek cities with fast, cheap internet service.

"If you have the types of broadband resources available to entrepreneurs, they find a way to use it," said Darryl McGraw, A&T's vice chancellor information technology and chief information officer.

A&T shares a core component of this region's broadband network with UNC-Greensboro — an 11-mile fiber ring that connects UNCG, A&T, Gate City University Research Park's South Campus and, eventially, the Union Square university campus under construction on South Elm Street. That loop connects directly with all of the state's public universities through the MCNC state broadband network.

The executives behind the initiative, called TriGig, say their idea is not to create a luxury data service but to complete a part of the region's infrastructure that will become as essential as power lines, water pipes and roads.

The days of the "56k dialup modem" for internet connection should be gone by now, they say, but for too many people minimal service is all they can get.

"This is not just the future, this is a platform," said Jane Nickles, CIO of Greensboro's Information Technology Department. "When we had 56k dialup we could never have envisioned the smartphone. We’re pooling our assets."

"Cities that don’t have it, they’re going to be left in the dust," Nickles said.

But the system will only work, she said, if the cities aren't spending any money to compete with corporations.

"We have fiber, poles, rights of way, buildings. It’s a matter of offering what we already have to help build the network," Nickles said. "We’ve even realized some things we didn’t know. Greensboro and Burlington have fiber within 10 miles of each other."

It would be up to private business to fill in the gaps and find customers to help pay for the work. But if those businesses could use free or low-cost resources from the communities and universities, maybe they'll find a way to make it work financially, Nickles said.

"There are lots of exciting possibilities because of the conversation we’re having," Nickles said.

Nickles is working with Hemant Desai, Guilford County's chief information officer, the data officers in High Point, Burlington and the universities to send out a request for proposals from private internet service providers that might see a business opportunity in using the public fiber to build out their networks, serve customers and possibly share profits.

Nickles and Desai say their expectations are high but vague because they've never done this before.

"The goal of this project is not to restrict but enhance the deployment," Desai said. "Let them come back to us and say, 'Here's what we'll provide you if you provide this to us.'"

North State Communications and AT&T offer types of gigabit internet service already in this region.

AT&T did not offer any response to two requests for comment on the collaboration. High Point-based North State's Chief Executive Officer Royster Tucker III issued a written statement that said he is aware that local governments may be working on a joint broadband project, and that other areas of the country are working in similar ways.

"We have no knowledge of any specific terms that may be involved (costs, service requirements, etc.) but we certainly look forward to hearing more should this become a reality," Tucker wrote. "We believe the availability of fiber and gigabit internet is one of several important contributors to economic development in the Triad.”

For consistency, all of the groups will present their requests through one document prepared by the Piedmont Triad Regional Council, this region's voluntary association of local governments that helps coordinate such projects.

The request should go out to businesses by the end of October or early November and the process of selection and negotiation should last into early next year, Desai said.

Nickles and Donna Heath, UNCG's associate vice chancellor of Information Technology Services Systems and Networks, were the first to consider the idea about a year ago, Heath said.

Heath said that combining public fiber with private operators is not a new idea — a similar program is already under way in Raleigh — and it's really just a matter of assessing what's already under ground.

They completed the fiber ring in 2008, knowing they could expand the capacity by ninefold in the future.

"Our reasoning at the time was we knew we had to dig and the digging was the expensive part of the construction," Heath said.

A&T's McGraw said the university will soon be announcing an MBA program and the more bandwidth it can offer, the more people it can serve online with live lectures.

For home use, business, education, experts say gigabit fiber is essential for the region's future.

"Everything’s going to be connected," Nickles said. "You're not only going to have plumbing and electricity. The last big network build was electricity. It was for the lightbulb. Well, think of how we use the lightbulb today."

©2015 the News & Record (Greensboro, N.C.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.