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2001: A time to marvel

Sun, 12/31/2000 - 7:00pm
Thomas G. Robinson
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By Thomas G. Robinson, Executive Vice President, CBG Communications robinson@cbgcommunications.com

I remember watching 2001: A Space Odyssey, back in the 1960s and marveling at the other-worldly, evolutionary tale that Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick were spinning. Maybe we havent quite achieved all that Messrs. Kubrick and Clarke envisioned, but now that its actually 2001, I think its still time to marvel at all that we have achieved. The communications systems that the industry is putting in place and the services that can be and are being provided are expanding so rapidly, that I think we might have taken for granted how far and how fast we have come since the no-fiber, no-cellphone, whatll we ever do with 35 channels days a scant quarter century ago.

By the same token, we frequently consider as commonplace the tremendous efforts of the literally millions of construction, technical, engineering, operations and other personnel that it took over the last quarter century to get us where we are today. We should also marvel, then, at the thousands and thousands of miles of infrastructure, literally put together in pieces all over the world that give us the end-to-end connections that facilitate the advanced services that are being provided today, and dreamed of for tomorrow.

Of course, infrastructure development does not come without its problems. For example, at the same time that vehicular traffic is increasing, construction over, under and in the streets continues to climb with all the recent and projected activity by competitive cable television and telecommunications companies. A number of credible studies have indicated that the resultant damage to the road surface and sub-surface does significantly degrade street life. Additionally, the sub-surface is becoming increasingly crowded with facilities-based providers, which makes it more difficult and expensive for the next guy in, as well as increasingly difficult for local authorities to manage the rights-of-way.

In reaction to this, though, again come several types of marvelous innovations. The first is the common conduit concept, already being employed by several cities like Boston, Mass., and being looked at by many more. Essentially, think of it as cable carpooling. In other words, much like cities want to maximize the existing roadway surfaces for vehicular traffic by encouraging high occupancy vehicles, they also want to maximize existing and new infrastructure underneath the rights-of-way, such that it reduces or eliminates frequent construction in the same portions of the right-of-way.

There are two major versions currently being employed. One version, once implemented, requires a company that desires to place facilities in the street to publicize its plans, and then coordinate construction with all others who wish to be in that same street at that time. Each must place conduit for its own use and for lease to entities that will come along after construction is completed. Further, to ensure that conduit is always available for new entrants, additional conduit must be set aside for the local jurisdiction to hold in reserve for new entrants as well. This in essence negates the need for further construction in the street by providing a tremendous amount of excess infrastructure in the right-of-way for both existing and new entrants for quite some time to come (anticipated to be until the street is reconstructed, which may be a period of 25 years or more).

The other version focuses on one company whose primary objective is to build common conduit banks within the right-of-way and then lease space to all entities who wish to utilize that particular street in the future. In order to be able to safely close the street after that companys construction is done, typically, the local jurisdiction must make sure that: the right amount and type of conduit capacity has been anticipated and constructed; that there are appropriate manholes, handholds, breakouts and laterals along the route to accommodate all potential users; and that the ensuing lease rates are advantageous to all potential users because they ultimately will equate to a cost that is less than the cost of a user constructing, installing and maintaining their own facilities (which, in major cities, will almost always be a six figure per mile construction cost).

Another innovation involves several companies, including one called CityNet, that are seeking to utilize thousands of miles of city sewer lines to provide the conduit necessary for cable and telecommunications services. Essentially, CityNet uses robots placed into the sewer system that install metal rings inside the sewer pipes at regular intervals. Stainless steel conduits are then attached to the metal rings. Subsequently, fiber optics are threaded through the metal rings and into buildings along the route. In return for use of the sewer pipes, the city receives a percentage of CityNets revenue. The City of Albuquerque, N.M., will be one of the first to utilize the CityNet system.

I know what youre thinking. Somehow, placing fiber in sewer pipes doesnt seem quite on par with Clarkes epic trip to Jupiter. However, when you think about it, if such an innovation helps create a faster rollout of optical pathways, and that spurs related economic development, it may prove to be as seminal as the obelisk was in Clarkes tale. Maybe, maybe not, but lets check again at Clarkes next milestone in 2010 and find out.

One thing is for sure, in the next nine years, there will be a lot more things to marvel at.

E-mail: robinson@cbgcommunications.com

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