What will the Fiber Optic Ring do for us?

Julie Sherwood
ECC Technologies Design Engineer Ron Healey checks their fiber distribution panels at the Technology Farm in Geneva. The fiber optic ring extends throughout Ontario County, and will soon expand into Yates and Schuyler Counties.

Nine years after Ontario County launched the building of its fiber optic ring — and nearly four years after completion of the fiber backbone covering 220 miles throughout the county — the benefits of the $5.5 million project are for many people still a mystery.

Now, Yates County, with the help of more than $2 million in grant funds, is beginning the process of bringing dark fiber into the county. But what does that mean for residents?

Sean Barry, Ontario County’s information officer, said he often gets questions from people wondering, where’s the fiber and how can I get it? The answer isn’t what most people want to hear, said Barry. The ring isn’t currently accessible or even desirable for most households. While a goal is to provide residents with affordable, easy access to the ring, for now that is not the case, Barry said.

First, most households don’t yet need the ring’s capacity or speed, Barry said. Even for larger households or ones with home-based businesses, residents can get a “business class” high-speed Internet service without the ring, he said. Second, an average household would not be able or willing to pay the cost of hooking up, which must be done through a provider. Thirdly, a provider must see it worth their while to do the hookup.

Providers “have to go where they can make money,” said Barry. “Dark fiber (defined as the unused optical fiber, available for use in fiber-optic communication) is there from the ring, but someone has to lease it and get it to the home … It might be too expensive to run up a hill in Bristol,” he said, citing an example.

The cost of getting hooked up involves a one-time construction fee, which varies, and a charge of about between $500 and $1,500 a month.

Who provides the fiber?

Axcess Ontario, the not-for-profit corporation that arranged building the ring and now promotes and oversees it, currently lists five providers on its website: Finger Lakes Technologies Group; tw telecom; OneStream Networks; Layer 8 Group, Inc., and Integrated Systems. That list is expected to grow under the business model.

“Axcess may team up with anybody to bring fiber to the home,” said Ed Hemminger, the county’s former chief information officer, now Axcess Ontario vice chairman, who was at the forefront of building the fiber ring.

“We built the ‘thruway,’ and we have to find the right companies to drive on that thruway,” added Hemminger, who was named in 2009 New York State Public Sector CIO of the Year, an award that recognizes CIOs who show exemplary leadership, strategic vision, innovation and collaboration.

The official completion of the fiber ring was in December 2010, producing a network of 16,000 fiber-strand miles in Ontario County. Since then, the network has expanded within the county and beyond its borders into neighboring counties.

“It is the infrastructure that allows travel at the speed of light,” said Hemminger, government sales director for Systems Maintenance Services Inc., a technology company in Victor. “Technology is going so crazy, and now we have the infrastructure that supports it,” he said.

The push continues to bring fiber to the home, said Barry. He likened the process to what happened with the expansion of cable TV. Barry recalled that when he was growing up in Victor in the 1970s and 1980s, his neighborhood couldn’t get cable service until well into the 80s when there was a higher population and greater demand.

“Eventually, it came to our part of Victor,” he said.

As with cable, as customer demand increases, it attracts providers that in turn compete for business, which then drives down costs.

Expanding the ring

In Yates County, which is in the process of partnering with Axcess Ontario, people are also asking questions.

Shawna Bonshak, Yates County planner, said the plan is to bring about 68 miles of optical fiber into the county. As is happening now in Ontario County, the fiber will initially help municipalities, academic institutions, hospitals and other large businesses and institutions.

Though the fiber will pass by some 11,000 homes, “it could go by your house, but that will be about it for now,” said Bonshak. “You can have fiber all day long,” she said. But you cannot access that fiber without a link to the line, which is where the provider comes in.

“It’s a huge goal to get broadband to the home,” she said. “That is the last mile.”

Mary Zelazny, CEO of Finger Lakes Community Health stated, “FLCH, the anchor partner for the grant in healthcare, partnered with Yates County and Axcess Ontario in securing the $2.4M funding for the Yates County Open Access Fiber Network in the governor’s original $25 million ConnectNY initiative in 2013. Since 2006, FLCH has successfully developed a telemedicine network and electronic medical record system across its nine-clinic network in Yates, Ontario, Wayne, Steuben, Seneca and Cayuga counties. However, we have been stymied in our effort to locate a health information technology (HIT) hub in Penn Yan due to the lack of abundant, robust and stable broadband in Yates County. Our partnership with the Yates County Open Access Fiber Network will address this disparity by connecting our Yates County facilities to more broadband, including our Administrative Office.

“However, as a community partner, we are keen to have the small businesses and residential customers in Yates County benefit from the cost and technology advantages of the proposed 68 miles of optical fiber passing by some 11,000 homes in Yates County Open Access Fiber Network. For the longest time, most smaller businesses have been burdened with inadequate and expensive broadband services. As taxpayers, it is only fair that their needs are prioritized along with the needs of larger businesses whose presence is being anticipated through this initiative. A $500-$1000 bill for broadband services will make the ‘Open-Access’ Network inaccessible to the people who need it the most. We sincerely hope that the original intent of the broadband initiative — that of providing affordable internet access to existing small businesses as well as potential new businesses — is focused on, in an effort to create a positive climate for economic development here in Yates County.”

Ahead of the game

Joe Starks is president and founder of ECC Technologies, a full-service technology and communications consulting group. In the past decade ECC has been involved with more than $1 billion worth of project development worldwide, according to its website, including Axcess Ontario. In fact, Starks wrote the business plan for Axcess Ontario and is its consultant.

“Ontario County is at the forefront,” said Starks, whose Penfield-based company is the exclusive marketing agent for the Axcess Ontario and the Southern Tier Network in New York state. Together, the networks comprise more than 500 miles of open-access fiber optic infrastructure in Ontario, Steuben, Schuyler and Chemung counties.

What large metropolitan areas such as Kansas City and Seattle are doing with fiber optic is what Ontario County did six or seven years ago, said Starks.

“Since the beginning, there were very few communities other than us doing this,” he said.

In 2011, Axcess Ontario received international recognition when its fiber optic ring was granted The CIO 100 award. The annual award from CIO Magazine recognizes organizations around the world that exemplify the highest level of operational and strategic excellence in information technology. It was the third major award within 10 months for Axcess Ontario, and particularly significant because the magazine reaches the top information technology officers and executives around the world, said Hemminger — a key audience as Axcess Ontario works to add telecom carriers and expand business and residential services using its fiber ring.

‘Coming soon’

Currently, behind the scenes, the ring is building a lot of users including those from out of state, said Starks, adding, “We have signed contracts coming from outside New York because those companies will provide services in Ontario County.”

“The key that drives this home is that they are spending millions of dollars here. … Axcess is becoming a regional gateway,” said Starks.

Andy Lukasiewicz, ECC’s director of broadband services, explained how the process plays out. “Initially, carriers offering Internet and voice services are entering the market,” he said. “This increases competition, improves service, selection and price. Cellular providers can leverage the open access network to deploy enhanced services such as 4G and small-cell technologies.” (4G is needed to get the fastest wireless connection)

As for technology firms, Lukasiewicz said they are beginning to come into the market. An example is the expansion of the Smart System Technology and Commercialization Center in Canandaigua, he said. “Axcess Ontario has fiber in the STC facility making it easier for businesses to locate here and engage carriers of their choice to obtain the high speed bandwidth they need.”

Recent developments at STC include a move by Xerox Corp. from China to the Canandaigua facility, a partnership Gov. Andrew Cuomo said is expected to create and retain up to 100 high-tech jobs over the next five years encompassing researchers, engineers and technicians. Dynamax Imaging LLC is also coming to STC, with plans to install more than $3 million worth of equipment there, along with establishing 100 jobs over three to five years.

An incentive for business

In another area of the county, tenants at the Cornell Agriculture and Food Technology Park in Geneva are accessing the ring for projects that involve doing business internationally, said Ontario County Economic Developer Mike Manikowski.

“They couldn’t do what they are doing without the fiber access,” he said.

Donna Reeves-Collins, chairwoman of Axcess Ontario and a former senior executive with Frontier Communications and founder of Cole and Parks in Victor, said businesses today require fiber access.

“Everything is driven that way,” said Reeves-Collins, who developed proprietary and patent-pending products that led to a joint venture with Buffalo-based Rich Products in 2007.

While the fiber ring is not the sole reason a company comes here, it offers a powerful incentive, said Manikowski. “It is the baseline for many businesses.”

Fiber to the home

And for homeowners? Fiber to the home — “that is the ultimate goal,” Manikowski said.

Starks said achieving that goal is fast approaching, with negotiations underway with providers to bring fiber to homes in select areas of Ontario County.

“Right now, it is rural areas that have been identified, targeted for fiber to the home in 2014,” he said.

However, with monthly fees ranging from $500 to $1,500, even businesses can find it prohibitive.

At Hunt Hollow Ski Club on County Road 36 in Naples, General Manager Joe Callahan was astounded to learn of the cost. Hunt Hollow is desperate for an Internet upgrade, Callahan said, but the price of accessing the ring is much higher than he imagined.

Callahan said the ski club must find affordable, reliable Internet service to meet its business needs and satisfy its members. When it comes to connectivity, “we are maxed out,” said Callahan.

Callahan said in January that only one Internet provider is available to Hunt Hollow. The club has no other options, he said, and the service offered is limited and unreliable. On top of that, in early January Hunt Hollow experienced an outage that lasted for an entire week, Callahan said.

“(Patrons) tell me, ‘Joe, we need to get on top of this because I need to work and play at the same time,’” he said.

Hunt Hollow gets more than 150 hits at a time on its Wi-Fi network during peak times on Saturdays and Sundays. Club members and guests — many business owners and other professionals, along with their families — expect consistent, online access for their laptops, smart phones and other devices, Callahan said.

On the business side, Hunt Hollow also needs the access to communicate with members and for marketing via its website, FaceBook, Twitter, Youtube videos, email and so forth. Callahan added that Hunt Hollow wants to install a digital sign, which it cannot do because of its outdated service.

Lukasiewicz said discussions continue with investors looking to create fiber-to-the-home networks in the region and such networks could significantly drive down the price for consumers. “We have seen carriers in other markets offering competitive fiber to the home services from $50 - $250/month depending upon speed tier,” he said.

Lukasiewicz explained that Axcess Ontario is “an open access network,” meaning its fiber is available for any carrier to lease.

What is preventing carriers such as Frontier and Time Warner Cable from leasing?

“Frontier and Time Warner Cable have the opportunity to lease fiber from Axcess Ontario,” said Lukasiewicz. “However, each carrier decides to use the Axcess Ontario fiber based upon their own strategic business strategy and opportunities at hand.”

While carriers have varying business models, said Lukasiewicz, a common obstacle for many is the added burden of investing in the construction of “middle mile fiber,” he said, adding that “with Axcess Ontario, the middle mile fiber is already there in many areas.”

Yates County Planner Bonshak says she explains getting hooked to the fiber ring like getting hooked up to a sewer system. The “middle mile fiber” is like the pipe that connects the home or business to the main line.

Where does the technology go from here? Hemminger said technology will continue to advance in everything from entertainment to medical science.

“Light travels from the moon to the earth in 1.3 seconds, and that is how fast data travels on the ring,” said Hemminger.

We will never be able to get data on and off the ring as fast as the speed of light,” he added. “But the ring provides a foundation,” Hemminger said. “That is the concept of why we built it — to ensure the economic future for the next generations.”

Includes reporting by John Christensen.

Read part two of this article focusing on how big businesses, such as F.F. Thompson and Soldiers & Sailors Hospitals and Keuka and Finger Lakes Community College will make use of the dark fiber ring in next week’s Chronicle-Express.