This is episode 222 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Centennial, Colorado's Fiber Director Tim Scott joins the show to discuss conduit policy, dark fiber strategy, and Ting. Listen to this episode here.
Tim Scott: How do we create a more competitive environment and enable new entrants to look at the market and put together products and services, leveraging the city’s backbone that can create this new, competitive, compelling environment in Centennial?
Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 222 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. In 2013, Centennial, Colorado voters chose overwhelmingly to opt out of the state's law that restricts local telecommunications authority. Since then, they've steadily advanced toward a plan to use their publicly owned fiber to bring better connectivity to the community. Last month, Internet service provider, Ting, announced that it would be partnering with Centennial to bring gigabit Internet service access via the city's publicly owned fiber-optic network. Tim Scott, the city's director of fiber infrastructure, joins Chris today to talk about Centennial's voyage from a new Denver suburb to a city that has the fiber to draw in a growing provider like Ting. He explains what the city has created and how, what providers are looking for, and offers more information about the new partnership. Now here are Chris and Tim Scott, director of fiber infrastructure from the city of Centennial, Colorado.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. Today I'm speaking with Tim Scott, the director of fiber infrastructure for the city of Centennial, Colorado. Welcome to the show.
Tim Scott: Morning, Chris. Thanks for inviting me.
Christopher Mitchell: I got it right, Tim Scott?
Tim Scott: Yeah, you did. You got it right. Good job.
Christopher Mitchell: The community of Centennial, I've actually been down in that area, in the Denver metro area. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Tim Scott: As you say, it's really considered a suburb nearly of Denver. We're right down on the southeast corner of the Denver metro area. What's kind of interesting about the city of Centennial, a lot of people don't know this, it's a very new city. We're only 15 years old. We were incorporated in February 7th, I believe, 2001. It's a very new city that was pieced together in a lot of what was unincorporated Arapahoe County land. We're 14 miles wide across. We often refer to the city as shaped a bit like a dumbbell. We've got this larger eastern residential area, which would be one of the dumbbells, and then it sort of narrows along the middle where we kind of have more of our central business district, or CBD area, and then it widens out again into more of a dumbbell shape on our western side of the city. 14 miles across and a population, I believe, of 107,000.
Christopher Mitchell: I think that shape actually plays into a lot of our discussion in terms of what Centennial's done with fiber-optics. We'll talk in a minute about the partnership that you're going to be engaging in where Ting is going to be leasing some lines from you. First let's talk about what Centennial has. What has Centennial built over the years?
Tim Scott: The city really has been on a path of really trying to figure out how fiber can continue to develop the city and keep it ahead, really, of a very competitive growing Denver metro area and sort of looking at ways to use fiber as a leading edge tool that continues to keep the city at the forefront, whether it's from an economic development perspective, for creativity, for our own city services. This has really been a path that the city's been on probably for, I would say, four years. It's probably a good indicator hopefully to some listeners of really how long it can take to figure all these pieces out. I know, Chris, that you've met many of their council members that attended some of the broadband shows over the years as they really tried to put these different pieces together. During those years, they took some really important steps, I think, to sort of get the city prepared ultimately for a broader fiber initiative with partnerships, potentially. Across those years, they continue to invest in some city owned fiber. We have about 50 miles today of fiber along most of the major roads through the city. They primarily are used— it’s city owned fiber, what we call ITS for intelligent traffic signaling. It really doesn't do anything more than that. That in itself has really served a purpose because the city through our Public Works Department built, deployed, managed contractors to deploy that fiber— some of that knowledge is internal within the city now, which is great. Probably most importantly really what it required was the building and the ownership of existing city conduit that that fiber would reside in. I think what we learned as a city is that ownership of that physical asset is so important and in this case ownership of as much as our own city conduit was really important because ultimately that's what's going to be leveraged in our next phase of our fiber build out.
Christopher Mitchell: I think the shape of the city actually really works to your advantage because if I understand it correctly, you were able with your intelligent traffic signaling to put in conduit and fiber along a few major corridors and yet be very close to the vast majority of the premises in the community.
Tim Scott: Yeah, that's correct. If we look at 2013, which is really our starting asset for our fiber master plan, which we'll talk about, which is really our 2016 initiative, if we look at our assets in 2013, where we had fiber in conduit, it really isn't that different from where we're going to invest and build new fiber in 2016 going forward, it's just that's called a different type of fiber with a different purpose, and that's going to be for serving our community anchor institutions and for serving ultimately businesses and residents. You're right, even in 2013, the city already had a strong footprint of existing city owned conduit and some existing fiber serving our traffic signaling, would run east to west across the city down those main roads, main lines, as you said really passes some significant residential populations and again with our coming down the core of that central business district in the middle of that dumbbell, passing a lot of business in our city as well that ultimately can be served with fiber.
Christopher Mitchell: Tim, I'm curious, I think a lot of people just sort of think, well if you had fiber to a lot of these places in 2013, why do you have to do something different now to achieve different ends, rather than the original ITS, intelligent traffic signaling ends?
Tim Scott: It's a great question, Chris. It's something I think that the city probably took a good 12, maybe even 24 months to really understand and get their head around completely that this strategy for fiber from a broader perspective needed to be a little different. Around 2013, the city had deployed fiber in typically a let's call it a point to point fashion, where the pure purpose of that fiber was to go from really one street crossing to another street crossing to serve traffic lights. That was a good purpose and why it was built at that time, but obviously when it was built at that time from a fiber density perspective, it was also low count fiber, like everything from 12 fibers up to 40 type fibers, but what we would call low density fiber. Also perhaps most importantly, I always feel a lot of communities tend to forget this, is it's really the accessibility to the fiber that becomes important. It's not just where the fiber goes, but it's where the handholds are and the future splice points are that ultimately that stretch fiber could be utilized to be used from an expansion perspective. Where do you break into that fiber to create a lateral that can connect to an anchor institution, a business, or a resident? It was a great starting point because it was, again, conduit that the city went through the process of either building and owning itself or getting it co-built with a carrier that may have been building some conduit in the city too, and then being able to use that existing conduit to serve a purpose in 2013, but again, revisit that conduit now in 2016 and say, "Okay, the best way for us would be to build a new, what we would call, carrier grade backbone infrastructure," but again using that existing conduit, a lot of it, that was built in 2013 and prior to 2013 to run this high count. In the case of the city of Centennial's backbone, you're going from low strand fiber to a 432 fiber backbone. That is a lot of fiber. A lot of people fall off their chairs when they say, "The city's building a 432 fiber backbone," so absolutely the city's backbone that will be deployed all around the city and in many of the same locations where we had ITS fiber and city owned conduit, except now it'll be probably 65 plus miles of new fiber backbone, 432 fiber count, the latest and greatest from a spec perspective in terms of fiber that's on the market today. Again, with all the records that we think are really important to accompany that. You've got to be able to prove conduit ownership. You've got to be able to create the right splice points and the right accessibility to the backbone fiber, and ultimately then back that up with the right level of documentation that shows the correct as-built exactly where it is, exactly how it's accessible. It's really building it with a purpose to serve as a facilitator for the private sector. I think that's very different than building fiber that has a single purpose, which in our case was ITS, and then building fiber as a backbone that really can be leveraged ultimately someday by the private sector who could come and use it, but has a higher level of expectation in terms of documentation, accessibility, support, how it was built, all that complex stuff that ultimately becomes important. We're going through all that complex stuff to build it exactly in the right way so it could be considered carrier grade.
Christopher Mitchell: There's a couple of questions that sort of spring to mind, and one is when you say you're reusing the conduit, did you have enough space to just put additional fiber in there or do you have to pull out those original 40-some strands?
Tim Scott: Yeah, good question. We have a lot of conduit conversations because actually what's quite interesting with this project is that we're 100% underground. It's all city owned conduit or ultimately what will be city owned conduit. In a lot of places, that's two inch conduit. Where we have two inch conduit and we have city fiber already there, we may build, as we go through this build process, another parallel conduit that will sit right beside it that will serve the 432. We're really going through that process right now with what we're calling our design engineering firm or our owner's project manager that really looks exactly what where do we have conduit, where do we have clean, clear two inch conduit that we can use for the new 432 backbone. Great. Where do we have existing conduit where it's clean and it's a quarter inch conduit, and where do we have existing city conduit where it's maybe two inch but there's going to be some fiber already in there? The plan right now, and of course this is all subjective to ultimately final budgets and stuff, but the plan right now is we really don't want to have to cut and pull out any fiber and then replace it with new backbone. Our preference would be to ensure that the city has lots of available city conduit, both for this project but even for the future too. I mean, if we can put in three two inch conduits in some locations, we'll look to do that because we believe that's still an asset and 10, 20 years down that could be very valuable.
Christopher Mitchell: Now, let's get onto what many people might consider the big news, which is that we've just learned that Ting, a company that's already working in Charlottesville, Virginia, Westminster, Maryland, we've talked about many times. They've also announced Holly Springs, North Carolina, and Sandpoint. And their fifth community they're going to be working with is Centennial, which I think is pretty tremendous, given that everyone seems to love their services. I've long been a wireless customer of theirs and I'm very happy. What's your relationship with Ting in terms of how they're interacting with you?
Tim Scott: Two weeks ago Ting broke the news that they were coming to Centennial, Colorado, which I think as you mentioned is their fifth planned community project. We're very excited about Ting. Ting is a company that certainly I've followed over the last couple of years as they've worked really diligently to get their first couple of projects on the eastern seaboard off the ground. I've had the pleasure of visiting those communities and really understanding both what Ting does locally, but also probably even more importantly is their engagement with the local community. Ting followed an RFI process that the city had, expressed their interest in leveraging this new, to be built, carrier grade 432 backbone, to really come and enter what I think is a wonderful market for them. It's an extremely fast growing area of the country. It's an extremely fast growing area of the Denver metro market. We have actually, in Centennial, we have the highest Internet adoption rate in the country of 96%. We believe we've got a very educated, very connected community. We think it's a great opportunity for a fiber player to come to town, leverage the city's backbone that gives that pervasive coverage across the city, and ultimately invest their dollars to bring the backbone to the premise, whether it's businesses, whether it's residential. One of the things you mentioned I think that's been a real standout has been what we've learned about their customer service. You've experienced that obviously on the wireless side, but it appears to be very similar on the wired side, the fiber side. We're excited about that. Obviously we're excited about their products and their future services, which hopefully they'll be bringing out as well to markets like Centennial. I look at it as a real game changer for the city. I really think that this presence of Ting will really transform the city of Centennial. I'm excited to see their white and blue trucks and vans drive around Centennial just like I saw them in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Christopher Mitchell: I'm curious, are they actually going to be leasing your fiber then or your conduit or will it vary depending on location? Is that all worked out yet?
Tim Scott: No, it's not all worked out yet. Basically the announcement is I think confirmation that they're in the what I would call research stage. They've already done their preliminary research. They're very happy about the demographics and obviously what they consider is a great market opportunity in Centennial. Now they dropped down a layer and they start to figure out, okay, where exactly should we target first? Which residential areas of the city make sense? What about the businesses? How do we do that? Obviously they have a large step up to create in terms of creating a local team in the Colorado market, something they'll be starting very soon. There's a lot of actions that they have to take. Then really their relationship with the city at this point is ultimately they will execute some sort of agreement or lease of fiber on the city's backbone. I think that will obviously be dictated a little bit about some of the decisions they have to make about where they will go first, which areas of the city, which residential areas of the city. The business relationship, if you want to call it that, is basically they're taking an IRU for fiber lease from the city of Centennial, which would absolutely be obviously available to the next partner that might want to take an IRU on the city's backbone.
Christopher Mitchell: That's actually something I wanted to ask you about. With 432 fiber strands, it seems like you have plenty of capacity then for any other ISPs that might want to also invest in Centennial.
Tim Scott: Yeah, we do. I mean, we are building deliberately a backbone that has a lot of capacity, both for opportunities for private carriers to lease dark fiber capacity on the backbone, but also for our community anchor institution use, public safety use for many agencies across the city. The opportunity is there for other carriers to lease fiber on our backbone and make that bet of investing to create fiber to the premise opportunities. I think a lot of people think about it and I think a lot of people see those opportunities, but actually taking the steps that Ting have done to create the brand around it, create the local teams around it, have the product services and customer support to back it up, those are different. Those are different steps. We're very pleased with the partnership. We're very pleased with where we are with Ting and we look forward to the decisions that they make over the next few months, which will really set up what they do in 2017 and beyond.
Christopher Mitchell: Now, this is a key moment in the podcast that I usually come up against, and that is we could end it right now and have a nice short podcast, but there's another question that's burning in my head. You're a unique person that can help answer it, I think. You have a pretty long background in dealing with various open solutions, both dark and lit open access approaches. Your background, you've worked previously with Axia, which is an open access provider working in the state of Massachusetts. I'm really curious if you can just – Some of our other cities who aren't Centennial who are trying to figure out how to think about their different options in terms of a dark versus a lit strategy for encouraging open competition in the community. What thoughts can you give them?
Tim Scott: Yeah, and it's a great question and I think one, Chris, that we've seen tossed about for years at various broadband and community fiber forums. I think the way that I would answer this is, first of all, just talking about what the city of Centennial did. The city of Centennial really tried to figure this out for a number of years. Went through the process, you've got to sit in a room and have everybody say, "Okay, we can either, at one end of the scale, do nothing or, at the other end of the scale, we can do everything," meaning that we can build a network, fiber, electronics, offer services, move into the whole competitive environment. At one end of the scale it's obviously $0, do nothing, and the other end of the scale it could be $150 million plus and become this new entity. I really believe that in all situations, depending on the community, there's a model for each. In the case of Centennial, it was not really to pick a middle ground or anything, but the right answer because of our drivers which was we didn't have a significant fiber in our community from a city perspective that we could really leverage. We had a competitive environment in the sense that we have Comcast and CenturyLink, but no fiber products being developed or being brought into the community from a fiber to the premise perspective. We had small, small numbers of fiber where the largest enterprises could get served with basically expensive fiber. We really felt, from an economic development perspective, the focus was on how do we create a backbone that can create a more competitive environment and enable new entrants to look at the market and put together products and services, leveraging the city's backbone that can create this new competitive, compelling environment in Centennial? Again, that just takes a lot of time to go through the process as a team to figure that out, to get through the right political support behind it, to educate everybody that's on council, not just the wonderful three members that we had on our fiber subcommittee who are all three sitting council members as well. It just takes time to go through that. In our case, the answer to what Centennial should provide became very evident through a lot of different workshops. It became very evident of what we felt we needed to do to change those dynamics. I see other communities that maybe are more rural and they really, truly believe that they have to move into what I would call the business. Maybe they only have one carrier serving their community and maybe they're not very focused on doing a great job. Obviously they need to go further on that scale towards that number that I talked about, that $150 million number, where they need to not just build fiber, but they might need to light up the electronics and even provide— compelling at least Internet services.
Christopher Mitchell: What I'm curious in particular is for a community that is really set on providing services indirectly, really focusing on wholesale services or wanting to encourage that, I'm curious about the merits of a dark versus a lit strategy. The city's basically already saying, "We're not going to provide services ourselves."
Tim Scott: Yeah. I feel like in our case we chose that dark fiber strategy because we see a line in the sand between being a provider of dark fiber and the complexity that's associated with making that business work and making those prices and products compelling for the marketplace. Then on the other side of that line, the complexity of moving into wholesale lit services is just a different ballgame. You've got to have a different type of team and you've got to have different capital and you've got to have different levels of expertise and different levels of support, and that option which would be wholesale lit services. Again, for us, it just became apparent through our process that creating a dark fiber backbone that was citywide, that has been built to a carrier grid standard that you can prove to any private parties that you sit down, whether it's the biggest guy in the country or the smallest guy. You can say, "Here's how it was built. Here's the as-builts. Here's the quality. Here's the data centers and carrier hotels that the backbone connects to." That becomes a very compelling proposition. There's other things that are important too, Chris. To ensure that dark fiber proposition works, the city has got to be organized. The city's got to have this permanent fix. It's got to have the right of ways fixed. All that stuff, what Google looked towards cities to provide, a lot of that work has gone on in the background as well over the last couple of years as the city also got organized to ensure that we could really be very responsive as it related to our codes and permitting and all those other requirements.
Christopher Mitchell: Great. One last follow up question, which is you mentioned this a couple of times and I think you're probably someone who could define it well, when you talk about carrier grade, I assume that's in contrast to enterprise grade, which is not a Star Trek reference. Aside from all the paperwork, which I find very interesting to prove that it's not going to cause any headaches for someone who's using it in the future, what are some of the other things that a potential ISP would be looking for in terms of something that's carrier grade?
Tim Scott: Yeah. It seems to get thrown around, but I think you got to be able to demonstrate to a private carrier that this backbone fiber that ultimately they're going to use and really treat as their asset under an IRU, you have to be able to demonstrate that it's been built correctly, with the right as-builts, that it's been tested correctly with the right fiber test results, such as OTDR testing, which they would, I assume, expect to see and many of them will, and that it's ultimately the right type of fiber in terms of its specifications. Some of those ... Those three elements I would certainly say all factor into something being termed carrier grade. Then the other piece that we touched on earlier that I didn't want to forget about is accessibility. There's no point in having the latest and greatest fiber backbone from point A to point B if you can't get at it in between. It's the getting at it in between that creates the valuable laterals that connect to the residential communities or connects to the businesses or connects to anchor institutions. It's combining, I feel, all the factors, right, and into that definition of what's carrier grade. Unfortunately, I've sat down over the years with many communities that might have the fiber asset but really struggle to explain and demonstrate to a private party that it's carrier grade because they don't have the documentation or they don't have the test results or they can't prove that it connects to the right points, A and B or A and Z locations, or that it's accessible in between and they've got the documentation to demonstrate where it's accessible in between. All those factors I feel melt into that broad definition of carrier grade.
Christopher Mitchell: Thank you for coming on the show to tell us so much more about what's happening in Centennial. I think also almost uniquely in this history of this show at least to really give us the nuts and bolts between the differences between building a network out for intelligent traffic signaling and how to attract a brand new carrier. It's been great.
Tim Scott: Thanks, Chris. Thanks a lot for having me on the show. I look forward to seeing you in Colorado sometime soon.
Lisa Gonzalez: Thank you for listening to episode 222 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Again, that was Tim Scott, director of fiber infrastructure from Centennial, Colorado. Read more about Centennial at MuniNetworks.org. Remember we have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits podcast available at MuniNetworks.org/BroadbandBits. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. Follow MuniNetworks.org's stories on Twitter, where the handle is @MuniNetworks. Thanks to the group, mojo monkeys, for their song “Bodacious,” licensed through Creative Commons, and thanks for listening.