Broadband networks already in construction, planning for Triangle

akenney@newsobserver.comFebruary 20, 2014 

— The push for stronger fiber networks is happening already in the Triangle.

In Holly Springs, a crew is boring a small tunnel for a new town-funded fiber-optic network. Across the region, municipalities and universities are laying the groundwork for a regional high-speed network.

While these efforts haven’t brought new competition to the area’s high-speed Internet market, these government-backed efforts show that any new Internet provider likely will find friendly hosts in North Carolina.

The N.C. Next Generation Network is an alliance of municipalities and schools that includes Raleigh, Cary, Carrboro, Chapel Hill, Durham, Winston Salem, UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke University, N.C. State University and Wake Forest University.

The group is jointly negotiating with eight private companies that are interested in bringing high-speed network service to the area. Together, the members are offering access to their existing cables, conduits and data centers, which could become part of a new cable network.

One of the interested companies is Time Warner Cable, but the rest will remain anonymous until negotiations are finished, said Bill Stice, technology director for Cary and vice chairman of the NCNGN steering committee.

Beyond an offering of assets, the effort is an invitation to companies. The process is meant to show the players’ willingness to work with each other and with potential service providers, and to examine the needs of potential contractors.

“By kind of cooperating and engaging in this effort, it is a more efficient process for all involved,” said Elise Kohn, program director for NCNGN.

The coalition is hoping for gigabit speeds. The group may also work with multiple private partners – and its leaders won’t mind if that new network arrives by some other way, such as Google’s potential investment.

“If we get that kind of connectivity and that kind of service to our citizens, I think that’s our ultimate goal,” Stice said. The group also said as much on its website with a post that welcomed Google’s announcement.

The town of Holly Springs plans to lay 16 miles of cable in two large loops at a cost of about $1.5 million, with completion set for April. The lines will connect town facilities to one another and to a high-speed regional network. The town projects that even in the “worst case,” the cost to build and maintain the project will be comparable to what it would pay Time Warner Cable for 10 years of minimal service.

With the new construction, town facilities would be able to communicate with each other, and potentially over the Internet at large, at speeds up to 20 times faster than they get now, according to a business case prepared by a consultant.

What the town doesn’t want to do is sell Internet service to home and business owners. Instead, the town hopes that third-party contractors will run “last-mile” connections from the town-owned main line out to homes and businesses.

Holly Springs already had inked a business deal with DukeNet: The town will give strands of its new fiber cables for the next 20 years to the Internet provider, which potentially would run connections to the Holly Springs Business Park, said Jeff Wilson, the town’s technology director.

DukeNet hasn’t reached the business park with its own network, Wilson said – so the deal could bring better offerings to business park campuses.

By using the town’s new infrastructure, DukeNet potentially could reach new parts of town, he said. In return, DukeNet is giving the town space on its own lines, giving the new Holly Springs network a better connection to the Internet at large.

However, it’s unclear whether DukeNet actually will offer new service at the business park. Time-Warner Cable recently purchased DukeNet, and it is unclear how the reformulated company will use its space on Holly Springs’ network.

In a written release, a Time Warner Cable spokesman said that the company would move ahead with the DukeNet project at the business park, but didn’t immediately elaborate.

Either way, Wilson hopes that the town’s new conduits will form a backbone for new Internet access. Wilson hears every week from residents curious about the project, and he has talked with several companies interested about extending the new fiber network to businesses and houses.

“We think a lot of them, just from conversation, are waiting for the network to finish being built,” Wilson said. “They’re just cautious. It’s expensive, still.”

Kenney: 919-829-4870; Twitter: @KenneyNC

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