Sunday, January 30, 2011

Bandwidth boost

The Roanoke and New River valleys and nearby communities are in line to get miles of "middle mile" cable to upgrade the region's Internet connectivity.

Andrew Cohill of the firm Design Nine helps communities get fiber-delivered Internet.

CODY DUTY The Roanoke Times

Andrew Cohill of the firm Design Nine helps communities get fiber-delivered Internet.

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Everyone, it sometimes seems, is looking to go faster on the information superhighway: researchers at Virginia Tech who want to stop FedExing big files and send them to colleagues electronically, families falling in love with Netflix streaming video, and small business owners hoping they or their employees can work from home.

But no matter how much computing power improves, consumers want more -- and how about cutting my rate at the same time, they ask?

This summer, the Roanoke and New River valleys and nearby communities are in line to get nearly 300 miles of federally subsidized "middle mile" cable for upgrading the region's Internet connectivity. This potentially historic bandwidth boost, if handled right, could usher in the possibility of game-changing advances in business, education, health care and quality of life.

Plans call for laying and lighting state of the art fiber-optic cable through Blacksburg, Bonsack, New Castle, Pearisburg, Radford, Riner and a host of other small, underserved communities, making possible mind-blowing Internet quality in places where connectivity speed is seriously lagging.

Optical fibers made of glass or other transparent material can carry large amounts of information beamed by lasers at virtually the speed of light, a significant improvement from copper TV or phone lines that carry most Web traffic to and from the end user today.

Companies and researchers could get the speed they need. Entrepreneurs pecking away in pajamas could upload the next great business idea -- whether they live in town or the country. Families and individuals could enjoy the full social and entertainment benefits of the Web. Groups that find accessing the Web too difficult or expensive today, such as some disabled people and minorities, could finally get hooked up. And, finally, the region could advance exponentially as a place to do business.

Right now, the federal government is pouring billions of dollars into improved Internet. The region's new lines will be paid for in large part through an initiative called "Connecting America: The National Broadband Plan."

Released a year ago this March, the Federal Communications Commission vision and policy statement says that everyone will have access to affordable, "robust" Internet service, meaning ample bandwidth for downloading content from the Web and uploading content to it.

The act aims to enable everyone to be both a consumer and a producer of Web content. Vast troves of creativity could be unlocked, the vision states.

"This is a transformative technology, much like electricity was over 100 years ago," Jim Baller, head of the US Broadband Coalition, told the New York-based International Business Times.

Increasing availability

To furnish the tools, the government is aiming for massive increases in bandwidth availability. And it is willing to foot a portion of the bill.

At a basic level, a community's electronic connections to the Internet are like its physical roads. Both offer connection to other regions and conduits for commerce. Experts say communities without good digital roads will struggle, just as communities without good physical roads are no longer on maps.

Today, many Americans including many in Southwest Virginia have plenty of bandwidth at home to play a YouTube video, for instance, which requires about 1 megabit per second, and easily send e-mail and browse websites, which requires about half that. The average speed by which people are now connected is 4 megabits -- 4 million bits of information per second -- but rural Southwest Virginia is dotted with neighborhoods with much less and the U.S. average is only about one-fourth the speed of that attained by global leader South Korea in its major cities, according to Akamai Technologies, a Web services company.

A two-way video conference requires 7 megabits. Connecting with an employer's computers while working from home would take even more. Running a data-intensive business from the den would require still more. Because upload speeds are often significantly lower, placing content on the Web is difficult for many.

What's more, some Americans do not use the Web on account of the cost of service or equipment or lack of skills.

Among those making $20,000 or less a year, six in 10 do not have Web access at home. Only 10 percent of people living on tribal lands, 42 percent of people with disabilities, 49 percent of Hispanics and 59 percent of blacks had Web access at home at the time the U.S. broadband plan was being written in 2009 and 2010. There is evidence the feds are serious about changing this.

"Goal No. 1," the broadband plan reads. "At least 100 million U.S. homes should have affordable access to actual download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second and actual upload speeds of at least 50 megabits per second."

That's a speed comparable to what 140 companies and research centers can hook to at the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center in Blacksburg. The administration is calling for the 100 million homes to be connected by 2020.

Toward that end, the Department of Commerce has awarded a multimillion dollar grant to the Virginia Tech Foundation to install 110 miles of fiber-optic cable between Blacksburg and Bedford and another large grant to Citizens Telephone Cooperative of Floyd to install 186 miles of the cable in the Roanoke and New River valleys focusing on rural places.

Once installed, these lines will provide needed supplemental connections to global Internet networks.

The Virginia Tech line will widen the information highway in terms comparable in scale to widening the region's chief physical highway, Interstate 81, to 250 lanes.

All that and more will cost less than $20 million and be done by the end of 2013.

"In terms of what we mean by broadband, we're talking many orders of magnitude of expanded capacity. It's more important than many people realize," said Jeff Crowder, an information technology program director at Tech.

Improving quality

Right now, latching onto a high-bandwidth connection can be a hassle.

VTLS Inc., a global supplier of library software in Blacksburg, encountered a five-month delay last year connecting its headquarters to a backup fiber for Web access, CEO Vinod Chachra said.

"The quality of broadband in this general community needs to be improved substantially to stay competitive in modern industry," Chachra said. "Frankly we are falling behind and we are falling behind due to a lack of commitment by local governments and others to this very important infrastructure development."

Skip Garner directs the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, which unites the powers of biology and information technology to advance medicine. It is at Virginia Tech. Garner said he, too, finds computing power a constraint. In spite of a 1 gigabit connection, "we are limited in what we could do," Garner said.

When the lab's DNA sequencers pile up data, "we will often put it on a 1-terabyte drive ... and FedEx it to our customers," Garner said.

An upgrade to 10 gigabits is coming. He expects it still won't be enough.

It might appear that new facilities would not have such problems, but even the 5-month-old Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute near downtown Roanoke is not satisfied with its Web service. While the speed is good at 10 gigabits, the cost it pays to service providers is staggering.

"It's in the tens of thousands of dollars a month," said Executive Director Michael Friedlander.

He called the new middle mile lines in Southwest Virginia a potential game-changer. Here's why: Virginia Tech has dibs on 12 fibers out of a 144-fiber trunk line running to Blacksburg to use as its own.

One pair alone is enough to create 120 10 gigabit connections at minimum. By the time the line is ready, laser strength could have advanced enough to support 120 100 gigabit connections, Crowder said.

At that point, Crowder expects Virginia Tech to be able to easily satiate the bandwidth needs of the bioinformatics institute and campus facilities and do so affordably. The university would be set on Web access for 20 years, he said. Off campus, venues such as the research center in Roanoke can be covered, too. It will require branching off the closest new trunk line, in Bonsack, to South Jefferson Street.

Just how that will happen is undecided, but Crowder speaks optimistically.

A matter of economics

That's fine for colleges and universities, but is all that bandwidth really needed in downtowns and neighborhoods?

Some argue yes -- or it soon will be because existing Web lines are becoming busy.

People watching Netflix consume 20 percent of prime-time bandwidth on a typical weeknight. And at the rate Skype is catching on as an alternative to phone service -- and now there's Skype with video -- the demand for bandwidth can only go higher.

To up their bandwidth, communities must connect themselves to new high-capacity trunk lines of the information highway like those coming to Southwest Virginia through local initiatives and, possibly, at local expense. It's undecided how these so-called last mile connections will occur.

"It all comes down to economics," said Dennis Reece, chief operating officer at Citizens Telephone. "The potential seems 'endless' at first glance, before economics are considered."

In other words, somebody has to connect the new glass filaments with wireless transmitters or additional fiber optic lines to homes, businesses, K-12 schools, hospitals and community institutions such as libraries for the Internet vision to happen.

Who could do that?

Should fiber lines be, like roads, owned by the government? Or, should the job be left to phone and cable companies, which installed and privately own the cables that carry most Web traffic today and are already investing heavily in system improvements including fiber-optic cable?

Advocates for broadband Internet over fiber-optic cable say the answers can't come too soon, and add that the region is already trailing.

"This region doesn't really have a solid plan how are we going to get big broadband everywhere," said Andrew Cohill, former director of the Blacksburg Electronic Village and now a private consultant whose firm, Design Nine in Blacksburg, helps communities get fiber-delivered Internet. Installing and maintaining that fiber -- though not being the service provider -- is a role for local governments or community nonprofits to consider, he said.

"We think it's got to be treated like essential public infrastructure," he said.

That way, access would be open to any service provider on equal footing. Just as anyone could launch a cab company or food delivery service over the road system, anyone will be able to use the information highway's new lanes. This creates competition, and competition lowers prices.

Cohill has seen it happen elsewhere. One of about 100 U.S. regions getting aggressive in this area is western Massachusetts, where 47 localities combined efforts to install fiber-optic Internet cabling to homes covering about one-quarter of the state, he said.

"Their vision is fiber everywhere. Fiber to every home, every business," Cohill said.

In western Massachusetts, Cohill ran into Douglas Trumbull, the 68-year-old film director behind the special effects in such films as "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Silent Running" and "Brainstorm."

At his home in the area, Trumbull wants a 300 mbps connection to support his continued work in the special effects business; his phone company-provided Web access is too slow. Trumbull said that if high-speed connectivity were available through the region where he lives, "he'd bring 100 more, very high paying movie jobs, technical jobs to western Massachusetts. Why western Massachusetts? He thinks it's a beautiful place to live. It's the same mountain chain as down here. So there's tremendous opportunities, but it's not about attracting another manufacturer," Cohill said.

Room to improve

At the moment, the topic of "last mile" connections is nowhere near the top of official agendas in the two valleys. But it could get new attention soon.

Steve Jones, Blacksburg's director of technology, acknowledges there is evidence that Blacksburg has fallen from the lead since becoming the first town in the world with a high percentage of homes, businesses and community institutions wired to use the Internet in 1993.

"We think there is a lot of room for improving what's available in this community now," Jones said.

Students attending Virginia Tech who live in urban areas served by Verizon's FiOS -- fiber-optic Internet at home -- ask why they can't get that here when they live off campus in Blacksburg, Jones said.

Blacksburg Mayor Ron Rordam is expected to announce the formation of a task force to fashion a vision for the town's Internet future, Jones said, and a public forum is planned before April 1.

Roanoke is aware of the issue and interested in following all developments, said Rob Ledger, economic development director.

For Ledger, there is no pressing need to do more, at least not yet. No one has come to his office and complained about any shortcomings in bandwidth, he said.

His conclusion: "The private market has addressed that need very adequately."

Sam English, a Roanoke businessman and economic strategist, sees an opportunity for Roanoke in the trunk line running through Bonsack. He supports Roanoke piggybacking on Virginia Tech's need to branch from it to the research institute on South Jefferson Street, he said. English is confident there would be many users along the way as the line passes through downtown. He said it might take a utilization study to make the case.

One thing that could propel everything forward will come out of California later this year. That's when Google has said it will name the U.S. communities to be gifted with Google-funded last mile connections sufficient for 1 gigabit service everywhere. Blacksburg and Roanoke have applied. If they are not picked, they are on their own.

You'll get a different take on the shifting Internet landscape from some of the communities that have in the past decade lost textile and furniture manufacturing jobs galore and suffered in the agricultural downturn in tobacco. Through Southside and Southwest Virginia are examples of heavy investments in fiber-optic connectivity as the economic driver of tomorrow.

Fiber optic-based Web service from three providers is available at 60 buildings in downtown Galax over lines installed by a three-government authority. The Galax-based Wired Road Broadband Authority expects to finish this year with $3 million raised and spent out of a $42 million plan to connect every home, business and community institution in Galax and the counties of Carroll and Grayson, a region of about 54,000 people, that will want Internet services that require fiber.

Private telecommunications providers could not be counted on to do the work, because the payback would have been too low, said Mike Maynard, a Grayson County supervisor who chairs the Wired Road board.

"The only reason we're in this is to get people connected," Maynard said. "If we had to wait for private entities to invest $42 million in the region, I don't know that it would ever happen."

The Obama administration is pouring billions of dollars into new fiber-optic cable for high-speed Internet. Nearly 300 miles of the cable will be installed in two projects impacting the Roanoke and New River valleys. The new cable is not the region's first optical fiber; telecommunications providers have already installed some. But the new lines represent an opportunity for extensive new connections when completed by 2013.

The Obama administration is pouring billions of dollars into new fiber-optic cable for high-speed Internet. Nearly 300 miles of the cable will be installed in two projects impacting the Roanoke and New River valleys. The new cable is not the region's first optical fiber; telecommunications providers have already installed some. But the new lines represent an opportunity for extensive new connections when completed by 2013.

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