Thomas G. Robinson
, Executive Vice President, CBG Communications Inc.
One of the thrilling things about the New Year is that it is a separation point of the old from the new–a chance to start again with a different plan.

The same might be said for casting off the old ways of implementing institutional networks (I-Nets), which focused significantly on islands–such as individual school district or government networks, separate networks for different government agencies and the use of lots and lots of leased lines. Instead, a developing trend for institutional networks, which I believe serves as a good template for I-Net development in 2003, is a partnership arrangement which looks at shared resources, inter-agency applications, common platforms and common management and support. These elements serve to maximize network capabilities while minimizing expense.

A good example is the I-Net that serves the northern part of Dakota County, Minn., which is just south of St. Paul. It is overseen by the Northern Dakota County Cable Communications Commission (NDC4). The network serves various facilities of three of the largest cities in the area, county libraries and service centers, three school districts, a private school and the local community college. It is a ring/hub/star configuration, using Gigabit Ethernet (GigE) on the backbone, and 10 megabits-per-second (Mbps), 100 Mbps and GigE star connections to various facilities.

The underlying network is fiber-based, with six strands starring out from each hub on the ring which are the organizational core data centers. This enables either individual services (video, voice and data) to use different transport methodologies on a pair of fibers, or the establishment of integrated services on a single pair with spares for future development. Because a common platform was always envisioned for ring transport, only six common fibers were needed for the backbone. Two are in active use for ring transport, two are spare and two others are used at this time to establish virtual dedicated paths from various facilities on the network for live video transmission purposes back to a master control location.

A significant portion of the fiber was originally placed by Continental Cablevision as part of a system upgrade. Some of these fibers were placed as expansion capacity and then allocated incrementally to the I-Net where needed and available. Then as the network was designed by successor AT&T Broadband (now Comcast), additional dedicated runs were placed to add capacity where needed, to complete portions of the ring and star connections and run laterals into the various institutional facilities. Because much of the existing system is aerial, new I-Net plant was overlashed wherever possible.

The incremental and dedicated cost of the entire backbone and star connection plant is being reimbursed to the cable company from each I-Net user organization based on the number of its facilities that are connected to the network. In some cases, organizations have paid the cost up front. In other cases, they are paying the capital cost over five years.

The cost of the network per user location works out to a relatively short payback, considering both cost savings from reducing or eliminating existing leased line costs and cost avoidance from not having to expand leased line costs in the future to meet expanding application needs. In fact, because each entity is lighting up its own star connections, once the transport equipment is paid for, the transport is essentially at no cost. Additionally, most entities are moving from leased T-1s to I-Net circuits that are 6.5 to 65 times faster in transfer rate.

The same would be true on the backbone, except that user entities decided that none among them wanted to be responsible for the management and monitoring of the common GigE transport ring. This is where the State of Minnesota's Intertechnologies Group (Intertech) stepped in. Already familiar with the operation of large WANs, regional MANs and statewide networks, Intertech had the expertise to take an initial I-Net design, develop all the transport specifics and a detailed bill of materials and establish necessary capacity management and system monitoring policies and procedures. It then worked with the user organizations to determine capacity requirements around the ring and to set up a rate schedule. Rates were per-organization and were lower for those who purchased their own ring transport equipment. Overall, the rates for shared, redundant GigE transport on the backbone were about the same as a T-1 cost per user entity.

The state also worked with AT&T to develop regional connections through other jurisdictions' I-Nets to key data centers and application service providers. The two main ones were Intertech's own core data center in downtown St. Paul and TIES (Technology In Education Services), just north of St. Paul. From Intertech's core location, the state can provide, through the interconnected I-Nets, high-speed Internet access, central data applications, public safety records and other data, and other services to the county and the cities. TIES is an educational consortium that provides similar Internet access and central data applications, as well as developing electronic distance learning content to school districts all over the region, including those in Dakota County. Again, in each case each user will be able to get a much faster connection to the core centers at the same or lower rates than their current leased line connections.

It's a grand collaboration that is working.