Funding increases for Southside Virginia network project

The open access fiber network planned for the Southside tobacco region of Virginia got a financial boost in December when the U.S. Department of Commerce's Economic Development Administration (EDA) agreed to nearly double its funding for the project. The EDA is now granting about $6 million, increasing the initial $3.35-million award announced last October (see Lightwave, December 2003, page 1). The increase resulted partly from new federal rules requiring that 70% of EDA funding go to first-time recipients, reducing the likelihood of further EDA funding for the Southside project near-term. The $6-million grant represents the second largest in EDA history, according to the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Cooperative (MBC), the nonprofit entity managing the development grants for the Southside project.

The Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, which got the Southside network project officially underway when it awarded a $3.35-million economic development grant (and the EDA agreed to match in October 2003) is increasing its award to match that of the EDA, in line with federal funding policies. The EDA and Tobacco Commission will now each provide development grants of roughly $6 million, bringing the total funding for the region's alternative fiber network (independent of Verizon's and Sprint's existing fiber routes to 24 of 55 regional industrial parks) to about $12 million.

The scope of the network has also been expanded. Network construction is now divided into two projects. The EDA and Tobacco Commission funding will be used to design and engineer a new 144-strand, 294-mi optical-fiber backbone cable along Route 58 and portions of Routes 220 and 360, connecting Stuart, Martinsville, Rocky Mount, Ferrum, Danville, South Boston, Keysville, Clarksville, South Hill, Lawrenceville, Emporia, and 33 industrial parks. The RFPs issued in early November for outside plant engineering services will apply to this portion of the network.

The Southside project, if all goes according to plan, will connect all 22 counties and 56 industrial parks in Southside Virginia via an open access broadband communications network designed to promote economic development in the region by January 2006. "The federal funding is helping us move towards that goal," says Tad Deriso, interim general manager, MBC, and a senior consultant at Cronin Communications Consultants (Marietta, GA).

The MBC expects to interview the 23 respondents that bid on the first RFP this month, with a plan to narrow the list to five. Those five will then have an opportunity to bid for the engineering services of the backbone outside plant. The MBC expects to award the contract shortly thereafter. This EDA-funded portion of the network—-basically the southern tier— is all new-build and will be handled as a separate construction piece. The winning design firm will map out the routes, develop the specifications for the construction of the network, and work with the Virginia Department of Transportation to secure permits and rights of way.

"Because it is federal money, they require a design that will then be developed into bid specifications and bid out to contractors," explains Deriso.

The MBC issued a second RFP, funded by the Virginia Tobacco Commission, for network planning, design, deployment, management, operations, maintenance, and provisioning on Jan. 5, with bids due Jan. 17. Funding is projected at roughly $20 million. The selection process is anticipated in March.

This "Regional Backbone Initiative for Southside Virginia" RFP encompasses the open access, advanced telecommunications infrastructure planned for all 22 counties, including the southern cable project funded by the EDA and Tobacco Commission. The network will use one or more rings, with regional hubs. The backbone rings may be 144-strand dark fiber or smaller fiber-count rings provisioned with OC-192 SONET and DWDM systems. These hubs (potentially located at business parks) will use star distribution with 24-strand fiber-cable links providing OC-3 (155-Mbit/sec) connections to the industrial parks and other points of interest such as a business development center, community college, or hospital. Products must be standards-complaint, from manufacturers in business for at least five years, with 50 or more customers using the SONET/DWDM technology for live traffic.

Unlike the EDA/Tobacco Commission cable project, portions of the rest of the network may consist of leased fiber. "We are trying to provide full connectivity for the region, without putting in the huge, huge backbone that we are doing on the south end of the project," says Deriso.

The idea is to provide wholesale bandwidth to alternative carriers as well as dark fiber. If service providers are in a hub, they can lease dark fiber on the MBC network to get from the hub to an industrial park and light it with their own equipment, or they can buy services from other providers riding the network. MBC is also participating in a price auction to procure an optical pathway from Southside Virginia to the Equinox point of presence in the Tyson's Corner, Reston, VA, area, which will give the region access to the networks of tier one carriers.

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