If you're a research organization, and you must have reliable, high-speed data links between your locations, a fiber optic network is critical. End of story.

However, most carriers charge a pretty penny for high-speed network access, especially at speeds above T-1 (1.5 Mbps). Granted, they offer full network management to justify the cost, but still, it's often more than most nonprofit organizations can afford.

So what to do? Well, if you can't afford to pay someone else to do it, the cheap solution is to "do it yourself." And that's exactly what two Canadian research organizations, SmartCapital and Netera Alliance, have done. In a bid to get economical high-speed service, these organizations have bypassed the middleman and are putting together their own dark fiber networks.

Granted, although the way they're doing it differs–SmartCapital is building its own plant, while Netera is leasing dark fiber–the goal is the same: to access high bandwidth fiber optic communications, without the usual cost.

SmartCapital's Ottawa Dark Fibre Build

The Ottawa Dark Fibre Build is the name for a highly ambitious project– wiring Canada's capital city, Ottawa, with its own ultra-high-speed, fiber optic network. As planned, the network will run east-to-west across the region of Ottawa, covering both Ottawa and the cross-river city of Hull, Quebec.

SmartCapital’s Ottawa Dark Fibre Build.

"The goal is to link over 30 schools, hospitals, research centers, businesses, government offices and universities with 300 fiber strands," says Paul Wilker, who's executive director of SmartCapital, the industry-government consortium which is leading the project. "The fiber will be owned by the institutions, and they can use it to transmit voice and data at any speed."

The Ottawa Dark Fibre Consortium decided to build its own network for a very simple reason: it was just too expensive to lease high-speed facilities. The consortium members weren't in the business of building fiber optic networks, so they put the project out to tender. The contract to build the network was eventually won by Montreal MSO Vidéotron, at a cost of about $1 million U.S.


"Vidéotron is currently installing standard singlemode fiber right now," says Wilker. "Depending on their needs and the amount they invested, each consortium member will have access to one to 12 fiber pairs."

As for the transmission technology? It's up to each SmartCapital member to decide what it wants to do. "This is dark fiber," Wilker notes, "so it's completely open to the participants whether they want to put Gigabit Ethernet or WDM (wave division multiplexing) on it. It's infinite."

This degree of choice is welcome, given that each consortium member has very different needs. For instance, the two local universities want to connect to CA*net 3, Canada's next-generation Internet research network. Other consortium members want to interconnect all their facilities.

One thing is certain: building their own fiber optic network was a smart idea for SmartCapital. The reason? The cost of the project was taken out of each consortium member's IT funds, so this project didn't require any government funding.

A final note: The Ottawa consortium is already considering phase two of its dark fiber build. Nothing has been finalized yet; however, the goal is to extend fiber access to schools, hospitals, libraries and museums. Observes Wilker, "We like to say we are thinking globally, but acting locally, to bring the community together."

Netera Alliance

Netera Alliance is a nonprofit group–one comprised of universities, government groups, and private sector partners–that's spearheading network development in Alberta. It runs NeteraNet, Alberta's multi-gigabit fiber optic backbone.

NeteraNet network architecture.

NeteraNet is what's known as a "pre-commercial broadband network." It's a high-speed proving ground for new network technologies and broadband network applications.

As for speed, NeteraNet's 225-mile backbone network combines Gigabit Ethernet technology and optical multiplexing to deliver a data rate of 4,096 Mbps. This is blindingly-fast carriage that makes T-1 look like 1440 baud.

Yet despite this astounding performance, Netera's membership fees are reasonable: just $3,448 a year for full access to the network. This works out to $287 a month–not bad for gigabit data service.

So how did Netera Alliance end up with such affordable high-speed service? According to Gary Finley, Netera's director of networking, it all goes back to the philosophy that drives networking research in Canada.

"Research applications require a large amount of bandwidth, which has an extremely high commercial value," Finley explains. "That's why Canadian governments, both at the federal and provincial level, recognize the need to provide alternative access to broadband networking for research, education, and health clients."

"Alternative access" means that Canada's governments are willing to help fund network construction, or to make it worthwhile for carriers to give research institutes a break.

In Netera's case, it was the second solution that played out. In exchange for membership in Netera and access to its research, telecom carriers Group Telecom and Telus provided two strands of dark fiber between Calgary and Edmonton. Alberta's two largest cities host its largest universities, and other Netera member institutions from the health and education sectors.

To put it mildly, the deal involved "a protracted set of negotiations," says Netera President Ken Hewitt. "We knew, and they knew, that they had a lot of fiber capacity between Calgary and Edmonton, but they weren't prepared to automatically release it without some understanding of their involvement, and the R&D aspects of it."

Unfortunately, a major stumbling block was the fact that "carriers do not like to provide dark fiber to customers," says Finley. "Neither Telus nor GT want to be seen as offering this service commercially."

So how did Netera talk them into it? Well, the most Finley will say is that Group Telecom and Telus are "corporate members of Netera. [As a result,] they're interested in participating in and supporting our activities."

Whatever the details, NeteraNet now has its own fiber optic network–one that it runs itself.

"We light it," says Hewitt. "We bought the gear to light the fiber as well as to manage the traffic on it, and we arrange the backup path with Telus. We pay both Group Telecom and Telus a monthly fee to maintain their segments of the backbone."

In order to save money, NeteraNet is using coarse wave division multiplexing (CWDM) to transmit its traffic. With relaxed optical specifications, compared to higher-capacity dense wave division multiplexing equipment, CWDM offers a low-cost point of entry into the realm of very high-capacity WAN networking. Netera's CWDM gear lights its network at a cost of approximately $265 U.S. per gigabit-mile. This is a fraction of the cost of traditional IP-over-ATM-over-Sonet networks. "An ATM/Sonet network with this capacity would cost between five and 10 times as much as NeteraNet," say Finley. "Our total cost for the 225-km backbone and the endpoint GigaPOPs was around $500,000 U.S."

Either beat 'em, or join 'em

Although Netera and SmartCapital have tackled the dark fiber challenge in different ways, their intent is the same: to get the bandwidth they need at a price they can afford. A price, it should be added, that they don't believe can be obtained from third-party carriers.

Should such private network builds concern cable TV and telecom companies? In a word, yes. Every bit of traffic that travels on a private network doesn't earn money for carriers, beyond perhaps a dark fiber rental fee. At best.

Moreover, Netera and SmartCapital aren't alone in building their own networks. Just an hour's drive south of Ottawa, the small towns of Morrisberg and Iroquois are stringing their own dark fiber. Their goal: to attract high-tech companies to the low-cost rural shores of Lake Ontario, by offering the same level of connectivity found in Canada's high-tech capital.

As for what's happening south of the Canada-U.S. border? According to Paul Wilker, the construction of privately-owned dark fiber networks is a "huge trend in the States."

For cable TV and telecom carriers, the threat is clear. More and more companies are likely to build their own dark fiber networks, unless carriers beat 'em or join 'em.

Beat 'em, as in reduce prices such that building one's own network just is not worth the expense.

Join 'em, as in follow Group Telecom's and Telus' lead, and take ownership stakes in privately-built dark fiber networks. At least by doing this, carriers will keep themselves in the game, while they figure out what to do next.

Contact James Careless via email at