Utah's 'other' FTTP project rolls out

The Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency (UTOPIA) fiber to the premises (FTTP) project has garnered at least its fair share of media attention. But as the lineup of cities and towns participating in UTOPIA and the effort's funding parameters have approached resolution, the city of Provo and Provo City Power have launched their own municipal fiber infrastructure initiative that some of the participants cite as the largest municipal FTTP rollout in North America. The venture, dubbed "iProvo," will link about 33,000 residential and commercial buildings with fiber via an active Ethernet architecture.

Full deployment began in July and is expected to last two years, according to Kevin Garlick, energy department director at Provo City Power. Rather than get into the telecommunications services business itself, the utility will make the infrastructure available to broadband-service providers to supply voice, data, and IP video. The project includes the construction of a headend (that UTOPIA will share) to support the video capability.

The roots of iProvo stretch to 1999, when Provo City Power decided to connect its 13 electrical substations with fiber. As was the case with several utilities and municipalities at the time, the company began to consider what else it could do with the infrastructure, including telecommunications applications. Consultants and citizen committees investigated the idea, including which architecture to pursue. The planners originally considered a hybrid fiber/coax approach, then an all-fiber architecture. "We were not very impressed with a lot of the cost early on," Garlick recalls of the offerings at the time, mainly based on passive-optical-network technology. "But for one reason or another the project kind of got delayed, and in those delays we saw major improvements in the fiber to the home equipment."

These improvements included the advent of active Ethernet approaches. Intrigued, the iProvo group arranged a pilot program in September 2002, using equipment from World Wide Packets (Spokane Valley, WA) and "triple play" services from local providers. The pilot infrastructure was installed early that month, and subscribers began to receive services by the end of the month. After a three-month free trial period, subscribers were offered the opportunity to retain the services for a fee or return to the existing service providers, according to Mary DeLaMare-Schaefer, director of marketing and customer relations at Provo City Power. The pilot proved so successful that it was never terminated-take-up rate currently stands at 46%. While the original vision for the pilot included 300 single-family homes and a couple of apartment complexes, the infrastructure currently serves the 300 homes, plus about 30 apartment complexes and 10 businesses.

"If we wanted to get out of the business, we couldn't," Garlick jokes.

Heartened by the pilot's success, the utility issued a systems request for proposal in March 2003 for the full rollout. The RFP garnered eight responses, which were evaluated under such criteria as cost, flexibility, scalability, and reliability. The utility decided this past May to stick with World Wide Packets as its equipment supplier, after the city council authorized $39 million for the project in February. Subsequently, Provo City Power contracted Atlantic Engineering (Atlanta) to perform network installation, while Codale Electric Supply (Salt Lake City) will deliver optical cable from Alcatel for the project.

World Wide Packets will supplyits complete Lightning Edge Ethernet Networking Access suite, says Barry Kantner, the company's vice president of marketing. The suite includes portals, concentrators, distributors, and the LENS network management system. The suite supports symmetrical 100-Mbit/sec transmission to each end user at a low installation cost, which Kantner estimated at less than $1,500 per subscriber, including the cable and labor costs. The network provides a model for what an active Ethernet infrastructure can provide, particularly in comparison to passive approaches, he believes.

In addition to selecting infrastructure vendors, Provo City Power also selected the first service provider, Video Internet Broadcasting (VIB-Ephrata, WA). The carrier will offer its HomeNet service, which combines voice, television, and Internet offerings. VIB also has agreed to purchase Provo Cable, one of the service providers in the pilot program.

Garlick and DeLaMare-Schaefer expect VIB will see competition on the iProvo infrastructure, which Garlick describes as a "managed open access network." Just when and how that competition arrives remains undetermined. "We definitely want to promote competition; we think that is one of the driving forces of the city doing this project for its citizens and for this community," Garlick explains. "But the challenge is [determining] how many service providers would a network like this support?"

"There will be some kind of process, because we're a municipality and we don't just pick anybody out of the air," DeLaMare-Schaefer adds. Garlick foresees a market survey, followed by the determination of whether all the carriers using the network must provide full triple-play services. The result could be another RFP or the determination of minimum criteria that service providers would have to meet to gain network access.

Kantner is confident the infrastructure will support competitive providers. "The solution as it exists today enables a wholesale or transport provider to manage all of the transport elements in the World Wide Packets access network independently from multiple content providers, who then can also have their own view of the network, the VLANs, and Layer 2 that provide the connectivity between them and the subscribers they serve," he says.

Provo City Power and its backers in the city expect to see several benefits from the investment in an optical infrastructure. "Certainly, we think it is a big boost in the economic development area," offers DeLaMare-Schaefer. "We think this helps particularly small and mid-size companies do business in a different way-in a more affordable way and a global way. And we also believe that it supports our larger companies as well, providing them with reliable broadband services."

DeLaMare-Schaefer also cites the social benefits such an infrastructure can provide. "We're not just another telecommunications project," she concludes. "It's about enabling a community to do the things that they want to do, with technology as the vehicle."

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