This is a guest post by Lisa Gonzalez, senior telecommunications researcher at The Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
In 1995, when city leaders in Ocala, Florida, realized it was time to replace copper connections between utility substations, they chose to go with fiber optics for better supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) operations. That same year, they hired Arnie Hersch, Senior Broadband Engineer, and tasked him with making the most out of the new infrastructure. Hersch, still working with the city, immediately got to work finding ways to help the community realize a long list of benefits with the Ocala Fiber Network (OFN).
Speeding Up, Saving Public Dollars
Within two years of switching the city’s municipal facilities from old dial-up connections to the new network, Hersch transferred the city’s network to an Asynchronous Transfer Mode, which allowed them to use the fiber network for computing and voice applications. Switching from multiple T1 lines, at a capacity of about 1.5 megabits per second (Mbps), to speeds limited only by the equipment used to light the fiber immediately improved city facilities’ speeds and reliability.
Like many other communities that have been providing their own connectivity for decades, Hersch isn’t exactly sure how much the city has cut its telecommunications costs. When Ocala began using the network for Internet access and voice, city leaders decided that the municipality would pay the utility the same rates the incumbents had charged for a T1 line. Hersch estimates that if similar services had been offered by the private sector, Ocala would have saved at least $1 million per year. After 23 years, those savings conservatively add up to a $23 million.
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Steady Demand Facilitates Steady Growth
A $4 million interdepartmental loan from the city’s electric utility to the telecommunications division funded the initial deployment of the OFN. Over time, the telecom utility, a division of the electric utility, has funded expansions throughout the community to bring the network to around 760 fiber miles.
By 1997, the city was connecting community anchor institutions (CAIs) because large, private-sector incumbents didn’t have the infrastructure to offer the large capacity that the CAIs needed. At the time, T1 lines cost about $400 per month; OFN charged all public and private entities the same price for 10 Mbps. Businesses — especially the many healthcare firms in the community — scrambled to sign-up with OFN. Hersch found that medical professionals welcomed dark fiber connections and connections both in office buildings and in-home offices.
Offering fiber connections at home offices put OFN on a track to connect residences to the network. However, OFN’s approach of connecting homes on a case-by-case basis led to slower paced, smaller deployment between 2004 and 2011.
A New Approach to Residential Deployment
By 2012, the state legislature had passed a law which discouraged municipal networks. Ocala had been grandfathered in, but the new changes impacted the city’s plans for the future. The telecom utility also faced intense demand from homeowners who wanted to connect and the waiting list for installation continued to grow.
City leaders and OFN engineers wanted to achieve their goal of connecting every residence in Ocala, but they elected to take a step back to find a more efficient plan for deployment. With the support of Hersch and the telecom utility, the city council imposed a moratorium on residential deployments in 2012 to allow the utility to catch up on installations and devise a new deployment approach.
Now that the moratorium is no longer in effect, the telecom utility is deploying Gigabit Passive Optical Networks (GPON) with a “fiberhood” approach. Interested residents register their participation early and in neighborhoods where demand reaches a 30 percent pre-signup level, engineers will plan deployment. Hersch considers the approach a way to both reduce the amount of fiber on the poles and deploy the network more efficiently. OFN isn’t actively marketing for additional subscribers — they don’t need to — but they’ve pinpointed four specific neighborhoods in Ocala that will be among the first to get Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH). OFN offers just one option for residential subscribers: $60 per month for symmetrical 300 Mbps service.
Encouraging Better Connectivity Throughout the Community
In addition to home offices, the network supplies fast, affordable, reliable connectivity to a local business incubator, which is located in a renovated electric utility facility. All Marion County facilities and the city’s electric meters connect to the network. All parks and recreational facilities have free public Wi-Fi and Ocala’s 129 traffic control signals make use of the city fiber as well.
Middle schools and high schools in the area connect to OFN for 40 gigabits and while they’d like to supply closer to 120 gigabits of capacity, the school district’s equipment couldn’t handle such a high capacity, says Hersch. The school used to obtain services from the incumbent at only one gigabit, so the increased connectivity speeds marks a major improvement for the local school system.
In recent years, as local communities and private sector providers began offering gigabit connections to subscribers on a regular basis, Hersch and others at OFN were surprised to see all the media fanfare. Ocala has been offering gigabit connectivity to local businesses and CAIs for decades.
Ocala is known for their historic Victorian architecture and their horse breeding, traditions that go back to the 1940s. Perhaps innovative and expansive network connectivity should be added to the city’s list of claims to fame. This north central Florida community and its 59,000 residents have proven that they have a talent for preserving the past while also preparing for the future.
About the Author: Lisa Gonzalez is a senior telecommunications researcher at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative, and serves as writer and editor at Muninetworks.org.