OpenCape is Almost Open for Business

Cape Cod brings thoughts of ocean waves and wind swept beaches. OpenCape and SmarterCape Partnership want to add “really fast pipe” to that image.

This winter, crews have begun installing over 300 miles of fiber optic lines [pdf] connecting 70 anchor institutions in the region. A few customers may be able to get service as early as this summer, and the network will be fully deployed by early 2013. It is middle mile infrastructure, which is to say it is intended to be the link between the Internet backbone and organizations and businesses that serve end users.

OpenCape began in 2006, when leaders of several Cape academic and research institutions met to compare notes on their telecommunications needs and wants. Dan Gallagher, as CIO of Cape Cod Community College, was paying about $3,750 per month for 3 T-1 lines to serve 5,000 students, plus faculty and administration. The CIO of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute was searching for a way to meet his organization’s needs for symmetric data transfer. As is typical for remote or geographically challenging areas, moderate bandwidth was very expensive, and the high capacity connections needed for modern computing applications were not available at any price. The Cape region also lacked a data center, which is necessary for redundant communications and network power systems.

Everyone at the meeting recognized their region had an infrastructure problem. As Gallagher, now CEO of OpenCape, puts it, “If you weren’t on a canal, if you didn’t get a train station, you wouldn’t survive. Today, broadband is that infrastructure.”

Further discussions ensued within the founding group and throughout the community. They looked to projects like Mid-Atlantic Broadband Cooperative, and thought about what would best fit their region.

At some point in the process of building and financing a new infrastructure, a decision is made about who will finance and own it. Ownership was a central part of the discussions from the beginning. “Long ago, we decided that roads are the domain of government,” says Gallagher. “We gave power to highly regulated monopolies. The cable and phone companies basically fell into it. With this vital infrastructure, we think citizens should own a stake in it and have a say in how it is used.”

The outcome is OpenCape, the non-profit that will own the network and data center. All 501(c)(3) organizations must have charitable purposes, and OpenCape’s mission is to reduce the burden of government by helping towns to deliver services more effectively. The Board is geographically and functionally representative of the region. It serves as an intermediary between the community and CapeNet, the company that is building and operating the system on OpenCape’s behalf and will offer services. According to Gallagher, OpenCape gives the community “an ownership stake in the infrastructure that’s going to support its economic and government activity, and civic engagement, for the next century. We own it on behalf of the community, and therefore we have a say in it.”

OpenCape identified CapeNet through an RFP process. It is a private venture formed by an existing telecom holding company and a group of consultants, to build and operate the network.

The capital investment comes from a $32 million federal Broadband Technology Opportunity Program (one of the two broadband stimulus programs) grant in February 2010, plus $8 million from the state, the county, and RCN Metro Optical Networks CapeNet .
Cape Cod is a a leader in the current trend in Massachusetts, and other states characterized by a large number of small towns, to gain efficiencies by regionalizing some of the core functions of government. In addition to connecting the anchor institutions to the Internet backbone, OpenCape will connect these entities to one another through a Regional Area Network. This common network will allow local governments to aggregate Internet access, telephone service, and applications licensed by numbers of users. Useful applications include regional GIS, and they are moving toward open source platforms shared among the entities because they can share support and expertise in using these applications. All of this making government more cost-effective and efficient.

The network will also allow residents and businesses to more easily conduct governmental business. For example, OpenCape will facilitate e-permitting in all towns on the network, meaning a plumbing company can pull all permits needed for a week of work, even if work is being done in multiple towns, just by connecting from a single point on the network.

Open Cape map

Public safety is important to the region, which is prone to severe weather, and particularly important for outer Cape. OpenCape will improve connectivity by paying for and supporting a backup 700 Mhz network. Redundancy ensures the network can support vital communications in times of emergency.

One of the offshoots of OpenCape is SmarterCape Partnership, an organization with representatives from major public and private entities. SmarterCape provides a place for the public and private silos of the region to collaborate, and to leverage the network and other regional assets. The organizations have a common identity through recognition of their shared problems, which include the Cape’s aging population, outflows of young people, and over-reliance on seasonal businesses and second homes. They know they need diversification to create a year-round economy.

Potential projects are already sprouting. Woods Hole is only one organization that needs greater symmetrical capacity to do its work. Upon hearing of the project, a radiologist who wants to live year-round on the Cape expressed his delight. He can work from anywhere provided he can upload an download large files very quickly to his home computer. Until OpenCape, he had no prospect for leaving the Boston area.

Another example is a Condo association that wants to aggregate its residents’ Internet services by getting a fiber optic connection into the development and using it to provide wireless throughout the complex. Similarly, the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth could use spectrum it owns to provide wireless with fiber backhaul in its neighborhood. There are other opportunities to make services available to lower-income households, perhaps from the community colleges.

Sandwich Economic Initiative Corp. plans to promote the network to businesses that would otherwise consider the community too remote. “Co-offices”, for people who work remotely but would like to work in an office setting, are also a possibility. While they may not add to the tax base in the same way as a new business, they make the work-day community more populous and vibrant.

Gallager says it is important that people understand, “OpenCape is an infrastructure, it’s not a panacea of cures, it’s not the applications that people may use day in and day out.” Using the metaphor of road networks, OpenCape is the main road connecting towns, not a side road connecting residences. Each anchor institution will have different ways of using the network and can learn from the others.