D.C. builds excess capacity into fiber network

Tech authority should operate and manage DC-NET, officials say.

Washington, D.C., City Council members are considering legislation that would create an independent authority to operate and manage the city’s fiber-optic backbone communications network, which should be complete by early 2009.

The proposed Communications Technology Authority of the District of Columbia would be a significant step as officials from the Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) continue to build DC-NET. The network will provide city agencies and schools with high-speed, secure and fault-tolerant voice, data and video communications for 911 calls, telemedicine, e-learning, and other services and applications.

The new authority would essentially become the city government’s telecommunications provider, offering more efficient services at a cheaper rate than private companies do. OCTO officials say the network is the first in the country that a municipality will build, operate and manage.

Charles Conley, the city’s telecom director, said 58 of the city’s 68 agencies use DC-NET in some capacity. He said 160 sites have replaced copper cables with fiber-optic ones, and more than a quarter of those sites have activated the fiber. Officials plan to connect as many as 350 buildings.

“We have about 14,000 telephones on the network right now, and we are serving about 30 data connections that serve…about 18,000 users,” he said. “We’re estimating 30,000 telephone users in the district, so we’re nearly halfway on telephone users.” He added that the network is carrying about 30 percent to 40 percent of the city’s data traffic.

Adam Rubinson, the city’s deputy CTO, said DC-NET is at only 5 percent capacity.

“We’re talking about nine rings at OC-48,” Rubinson said. “So it’s nine times 2.4 gigabits/sec. If at some point in the future…we get up to 75 [percent] to 80 percent usage, the great thing about this network is how scalable it is. You switch out the lasers [from] OC-48 to OC-192, and now you’ve gotten a quantum leap in capacity, and it’s just so easy to do.”

Frank Dzubeck, president of Communications Network Architects, an industry analysis firm based in Washington, D.C., said fiber-optic networks have been around a while, especially in Europe. A few U.S. states have also developed them, and cities are starting to build them, in addition to establishing Wi-Fi and WiMax networks. Dzubeck said that because Washington, D.C., is geographically small and the network only serves government entities, “that’s a perfect rationale.”

“The only trouble is that it’s going to get extremely expensive,” he said. “Backbones are inexpensive if you can build them in the right right-of-ways. They get extremely expensive if you go into neighborhoods like Verizon is doing. If you’re going into where some of the schools are located, then you start to get very expensive.”

Another problem the city may encounter is installing fiber in buildings that will later be torn down, which would be a waste of taxpayer money, Dzubeck said.

Although conceived in 1999, the $93 million DC-NET became an imperative following the 2001 terrorist attacks, OCTO officials said. They wanted a reliable and scalable network in which critical calls would not compete with residential or business telecom traffic. They weren’t getting that reliability from Verizon, their telecom provider, which OCTO officials fought in developing this network.

“We would not be at the mercy of any commercial telephony operation — either voice or data — for someone else to decide how much of a capacity of a network the capital of the free world would need,” Suzanne Peck, the city’s CTO, said.

Rubinson said the city faced a number of legal and lobbying challenges, but it prevailed because officials were stubborn. “We won’t take no for an answer if it’s in the public interest,” he said.

Verizon spokeswoman Christy Reap said the company disagrees. She said the company believes municipalities should approach such projects “with their eyes wide open” because they put taxpayer money at risk. She said Verizon has provided the city with good service.

“All the things that have to do with running a sophisticated telecom network — like installation, maintenance, billing, repairs [and] upgrades — takes significant expertise and money,” Reap said.

DC-NET’s high-level design began in 2002, and its basic Synchronous Optical Network rings were built by 2004 using the latest technology from Cisco Systems. Avaya is supplying the network’s PBX equipment.

“Any break in the ring simply wraps the traffic back around the other way on the ring so you get no outage,” Conley said. “Even in the storms we’ve had and some power losses of individual sites…we have managed to survive all of those with no outage. And since Sonet inherently supports a 50 millisecond failover from the primary route to the backup route, you don’t even lose a voice call.”

Rubinson said failover ensures that critical 911 calls routed from public safety answering points reach their destination.

Once DC-NET is fully operational, Peck said, the district will save about 30 percent in annual telecom costs — or about $10 million — compared with what it paid for Verizon’s fiber network. She said the city must still pay Verizon $20 million for landline telephones, data communications and other services. But even those services will be open to competition, which could potentially net another $3 million in savings.

Once the city establishes the independent Communications Technology Authority, Peck said, officials plan to offer DC-NET as a backup network to federal agencies for continuity-of-business operations. Even if it is only modestly successful, it could become a good revenue stream for the city, she said.

But Dzubeck said the city would be breaking the law if it competes with the private sector to offer services to federal agencies.

“They can build it themselves and use it, but they can’t sell it to the federal government,” he said. “That’s part of the rules of the game that government entities do not compete against private entities. There’ll be lawsuits in 36 seconds.”

Reap agreed that the city is going into “untested waters. No municipality has done that. And we would oppose that, and we have said that on the record.”

Peck said that issue can be discussed with the city’s attorney general.

“As the technology office, our focus is on the city’s state-of-the-art fiber-optic network,” she said. “This network has unprecedented reliability and almost unlimited bandwidth capable of meeting the district’s full voice and data communications needs.”

Sarkar is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

DC-NET gears up to take on more calls

DC-NET, the fiber-optic backbone network for Washington, D.C., carries about 2 million calls per month for the government, according to statistics provided by the Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO). Of those calls, 1.3 million were incoming, and the remainder were outgoing.

When the Unified Communication Center — which will house the citywide emergency call center — opens in August, the district’s two selective routers will route all Enhanced 911 calls across DC-NET. OCTO officials estimate that the network will transport an additional 76,000 E911 calls monthly. The plan does not include calls to 311 and the city’s general services number.

Suzanne Peck, the city’s CTO, said DC-NET will deliver E911 calls more quickly and securely than the current system. She said a database will contain information about the calls.

— Dibya Sarkar