FTTH trial approved in Palo Alto

Palo Alto, CA, may become one of the first cities in the nation to roll out a fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) trial in an already-developed residential neighborhood. On April 5, the Palo Alto City Council voted 7 to 1 in favor of a five-year FTTH trial, contingent upon participants repaying the estimated $380,000 infrastructure costs by the end of the trial period. The FTTH trial will be used to gain information about residential high-speed Internet connections to the city's fiber-optic backbone.

The FTTH trial was sought by a community grassroots organization, Palo Alto Fiber Network, and the City of Palo Alto Utilities company, which owns and leases dark fiber on a 29-mi fiber-optic ring, that circles the city and connects to the locally based Digital Equipment Corp./Compaq Palo Alto Internet Exchange (PAIX). The Palo Alto Utilities' fiber backbone was built in 1997 and completed in 1998. Dark fiber is currently leased on a point-to-point basis to telecommunications and commercial businesses. In parallel to the FTTH trial, the City of Palo Alto Utilities company won approval from the city council to develop a universal telecommunications services RFP for a citywide build-out.

According to a residential survey conducted by the utility in August of last year, 69 residents in one target area known as Community Center indicated an interest in the FTTH trial and "a willingness to pay a rather large up-front fee to get hooked up," says a City of Palo Alto Utilities spokeswoman.

Exact connection and service fees will depend on the number of participants, the line-rate speeds, and the selected services provided by an as yet undetermined Internet service provider (ISP). It is currently estimated that each resident will pay either $1200 or higher for the initial high-speed Internet hookup with a $75 monthly connection charge for a 10-Mbit/sec line rate or a $2400 initial hookup with a $110-per-month connection charge for a 100-Mbit/sec line rate.

"Those are only estimated values. Once we progress with this and go forward, we'll have a better feel for what the numbers will be," says Mohammad M. Fattah, fiber-optic services manager, City of Palo Alto Utilities.

"A contract is in development right now," says the utilities spokeswoman. "The trial may be called off if these folks don't actually sign on the line--if the contracts don't come through, then there might be a decision in the future that we wouldn't pursue it."

Although still in the initial planning stages, the city council's approval of the FTTH trial proposal, and additional research, sets the project in motion.

Based on preliminary designs, the data-only infrastructure will consist of a "campus-style" Ethernet network with two multimode fibers tying each home to a Gigabit Ethernet (1-Gbit/sec) switch site on the City of Palo Alto Utilities' singlemode fiber backbone. Home users will have a choice of Ethernet (10-Mbit/sec) or Fast Ethernet (100-Mbit/sec) connections. The backbone will connect to an ISP at the downtown PAIX. About 60 ISPs currently service the Palo Alto area. Only one ISP is likely to participate in the FTTH trial.

"I don't think the technology that is being employed has ever been used in quite this fashion before," says Tom Marshall, electrical engineering manager at the City of Palo Alto Utilities company. "Ethernet LAN [local-area network], which is more of a campus-style connection--they're actually proposing to roll it out in a neighborhood."

Claimed advantages of Ethernet are low cost and scalability. "Cost is a major issue," says Fattah. "For now, it is a data network."

How the fiber will enter the home and be terminated has been looked into but not yet determined. "Some of the issues are the physical stringing of the cables--a lot of it is in backyards--and some of the other details about how we are going to attach, but we haven't worked any of those things out yet," says Marshall.

The city is contracting to have the infrastructure built. "We haven't selected any of the equipment vendors," says Marshall. "Right now we are going back to council for funding approval. We'll begin the engineering design process after that. We are shooting for going out on the street for a construction bid in September."

If all goes according to plan, the FTTH trial is expected to start operation in June 2000. Other cities are expected to closely monitor developments in the FTTH trial in Palo Alto. At the same time, current plans to proceed with the FTTH trial may cease at any time, depending on the outcome of negotiations, says the City of Palo Alto Utilities spokeswoman.

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