Maryland superhighway shares fiber network cost and usage

Maryland superhighway shares fiber network cost and usage

George Lawton

The Maryland state government has launched an innovative program to build a statewide fiber-optic network. It is bartering to commercial companies all its highways as fiber-optic network rights-of-way. In exchange, the commerical companies will also install a government-owned network.

One interested company, MCI Corp. in Washington, DC, has agreed to build a 75-mile network from Pennsylvania to Washington; other communications companies appear eager to follow suit. The planned fiber-optic network is initially slated to serve as a traffic management system for the state`s highway system.

This fiber highway strategy is not the first such traffic control proposal. Northern Virginia, Los Angeles, Toronto and Minneapolis have already implemented similar optical systems, known as Intelligent Transportation Systems. Installers of these systems receive funds under a clean air program from the Federal Highway Administration to purchase car-tracking radar sensors and cameras.

The Maryland partnership approach, however, is claimed to be the first in which a private company is subsidizing the construction of a state government fiber-optic network. Moreover, it allegedly marks the first time that a commercial optical network runs parallel to an interstate highway.

The fiber network construction plan copies standard installations. MCI is using 24-strand conduit-encased singlemode fiber. Highway cable burial will be identical to the methods used to lay fiber-optic cable alongside railroad tracks.

According to analysts, the long-distance carrier`s real coup centers on how quickly it overcame government bureaucracy. In previous private network installations, these types of long-distance fiber networks were laid alongside existing railroad or power company rights-of-way.

Trio of applications

John White, assistant secretary for telecommunications at the Maryland Department of Resources, envisions the following three major applications over these fiber networks:

Migrate the state`s existing T-1 link to the network.

Establish a distance-learning network that supports video conferencing.

Cut over the Chesapeake Highway Advisory for Routing Traffic to a fiber-optic network; this agency now uses radar units, cameras and microwave transmission to control traffic.

In the first application, MCI will connect 8.4 miles of spur links off its backbone network to Maryland state government offices. White claims that this setup could save the state $1 million to $3 million in telecommunications costs.

Charles Goepel, director for advanced telecommunications projects at the Maryland Department of Resources, contends that by not building its own fiber-optic network, the state is saving $15 million. He is initiating network requests for proposal that will cover all 700 miles of Maryland`s interstate highways.

In the second application, the Maryland state government is seeking to use the fiber-optic network to interconnect schools and universities for distance-learning programs. Although these programs are in the planning stages, Goepel hopes to use the fiber-optic networks in educational ways that are similar to those built in Iowa at taxpayers` expense.

Goepel explains, "By taking relatively virgin territory and making it available to telecommunications companies in exchange for bandwidth, we are using the concept of resource sharing."

In the state`s third application, cameras and other sensors will be linked to the fiber-optic network to help traffic controllers monitor traffic flow and to direct assistance personnel and support vehicles to accident sites and road stoppages.

Approximately one year ago, Goepel`s group sent requests for proposals to 18 telecommunications companies. MCI expressed immediate interest in a particular route. According to Goepel, "Initially, MCI was pessimistic that the state could act quickly enough. But we surprised them with our reaction time."

Other telecommunications companies are being encouraged to partner with Maryland on this first route. MCI is installing only dark fiber. The state needs others to install the network`s opto-electronics equipment.

Says Goepel, "It is not a dead issue in terms of the one route. Additional negotiations are being held with other companies that might want to get into the trenches. We are looking to construct an OC-48 fiber backbone network and give the state an OC-12 backbone. We have some flexibility, and we are trying to come up with the best deal we can."

Long-distance history

According to Frank Kozel, senior vice president for network implementation at MCI, "In the early part of the industry, when everyone looked at potential, the whole industry thought of railroads as the best rights-of-way. But the railroad companies extracted a premium."

In 1987, MCI was the first telecommunications company to deploy a fiber-optic system along the Tennessee Valley Authority`s power network based on a new fiber from Alcoa Fujikura. This fiber was capable of being strung for long distances alongside power lines. Since then, MCI has bartered for 11 other routes with power companies, according to Kozel.

Kozel adds that the real benefit of working with partners is that they are more willing to share the costs of building and managing the network. In many cases, the power companies will share some of the fiber installed by MCI.

Kozel says that Maryland was the first state to get serious about opening its highways for fiber. He has talked with more than 15 other states, buy not one has come through with a serious proposal.

Remarks Kozel, "I think this is a classic win-win case where everyone comes out ahead. We have a secure right-of-way that both parties want to keep secure. I think it was innovative that Maryland kept this direction. We have tried it with other states, but we have not been able to get them interested." q

George Lawton is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.

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