Update on Salisbury Fiber Network

After focusing on the North Carolina battle at the Legislature (regarding whether cities should be allowed to choose to build their own broadband networks or if they should solely have to beg the private sector for investment), I wanted to check in on Salisbury, which is building a FTTH network.

Salisbury has persevered through many obstacles, including finding financing for the project in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Depression. They will begin serving customers this August.

After choosing the name "Fibrant" as the name of the network, they have established a slick web presence at fibrant.com. The site has a a blog, but is rarely updated currently.

Earlier in the month, the local paper discussed the ways in which the fiber network will aid public safety. The short answer is video, video, video.

Video can be used for security cameras (both in public places and in private homes) as well as to give officers better situational awareness when they arrive on a scene. But wireless video access is often the key - both so officers can stream video in the cruiser and because wireless video cameras are easier to place (no pesky wires to run) and move around.

Though wireless video is helpful, it creates of a lot of data that is best moved across fast, reliable, wired networks. This is why fiber-optic networks and wireless are better understood as complements than substitutes. A robust fiber architecture greatly eases the problems incurred by creating a wireless network because the wireless nodes will be more efficient if all are tied into a fiber network. Rather than streaming data across the entire city to send a single feed to a cruiser, a local access point will stream it across a smaller footprint.

"They are potentially looking at helmet cams," Doug Paris said, assistant to the city manager. "Those who are sitting outside (the structure) will be able to see what's going on inside."

It would make little sense for the fireman to have wires coming out of their helmets. But that wireless signal from the helmet probably won't propagate to the fire hall or police station. Instead, a wireless access point near the fire can grab the signal and make it available to anyone who needs access to it.

One reason public safety departments may not want to rely on privately owned wireless networks is because they may have dead areas. Consider that wireless carriers may focus investment in the areas that generate the highest revenues -- they may see little reason to ensure their services are reliable in rural areas or warehouse districts, for example. Police officers need access to all their tools everywhere in the community, not just where it is convenient for some company to offer it. Ownership of both the wired and wireless components make a lot of sense to local government.

And finally, just because we cannot get away from it, Salisbury has been involved in fighting back Time Warner's Monopoly Protection Act at the state capital - Raleigh. Both local officials and a private business owner traveled across the state to oppose a bill to prevent communities from building networks.

Local business owner Brad Walser was surprised how much opposition there is to publicly owned FTTH networks:

"I'm a firm believe that fiber optics will open the door to innovation and current high bandwidth applications, such as telemedicine, remote training in education, hoteling and telecommuting," Walser said. "It opened my eyes to how hard the city is having to fight to ensure they can install this fiber network."

He recognized that the unwillingness of incumbent providers to invest in modern networks hurts communities:

"Certain areas within the city limits cannot receive reliable bandwidth. We host websites, e-mails, off-site data storage, and for them to get that data to us, they need a good connection to the Internet."

Around the country, many of us are watching these events in North Carolina, hoping Time Warner and its legion of lobbyists cannot pass a bill to lock communities into their shoddy service.