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August 12, 2013

High in fiber: Increasing data, reliability needs drive fiber optic network growth in CT

Photos | Contributed Anderson Productions systems manager Mike Hannau, pictured above, said his Bristol-based company relies on fiber optic cable to send international sports feeds to its neighboring client ESPN.
Fibertech Networks opened a regional operations center in Cheshire, pictured above, earlier this year. The company’s 41 local employees are taking advantage of the growing use of fiber optic cable by Connecticut businesses.
Photo | Contributed Fibertech Networks employees work at a local job site in Connecticut.

In 2001, Fibertech Networks had a modest 250 miles of fiber optic cable strung up in Connecticut.

The Rochester, N.Y. firm was a tiny player in a fledgling industry dominated by large conglomerates like AT&T.

Today, however, things have changed dramatically. Fibertech has grown its Connecticut fiber optic network — used to transmit vast amounts of computer data at lighting speeds — to 3,500 miles, a quarter of which has been installed this year alone.

The company is bullish on the Connecticut market where a third of its 9,500 miles of fiber optic cable across a 10-state footprint are buried or hung. The company opened a Cheshire office earlier this year with 41 full-time workers who install cable in commercial buildings in Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven and Stamford.

“It's really a regional hub for us now,” said Michael Hurley, Fibertech's sales and marketing vice president.

Fibertech's growth is symbolic of a broader trend in Connecticut.

The use of fiber has exploded across the state over the past 13 years, making it more affordable for companies to access high-bandwidth connections to the Internet and direct links between their corporate facilities.

And that's a good thing, industry officials say, because many companies that are paying for those services aren't doing it for the luxury. They need to send huge amounts of data between offices, or to data centers to be backed up and stored.

Fiber cable sends data in pulses of light through a glass strand, rather than an electric current sent through a copper wire, which is how data is typically sent through the Internet.

Fiber cable is used by companies like Anderson Productions, a Bristol-based video editing and post-production firm whose biggest customer, ESPN, is located directly across the street.

“We wanted to support ESPN on live transmissions,” said Michael Hannau, Anderson's editor and systems manager. “The only way you're going to get that done, realistically, is through fiber.”

Anderson often works with ESPN on international sports feeds. ESPN will receive a high-definition feed from, say, a Brazilian soccer match, which it sends to Anderson through a private “dark fiber” line strung between the two buildings. Dark fiber means Anderson provides its own optical routing equipment on both ends of the fiber line, and has virtually unlimited bandwidth as a result. Compare that to “lit” service, in which a provider like Fibertech, AT&T or Comcast acts as a middleman by providing that equipment itself and limiting the bandwidth.

Anderson's producers add graphics, voiceovers and other edits and send the finished product back over the line.

It's a direct connection between two points that can easily handle multiple gigabits per second. There's no other traffic on the connection like web surfers might experience at home with cable Internet.

“It's an absolutely perfect signal,” Hannau said.

And it's a reliable signal, which is another big reason fiber is becoming increasingly popular to businesses, experts say.

In the October 2011 snowstorm, for example, Anderson lost power right in the middle of a feed. Hannau said the backup generators kicked in and the stream kept running, uninterrupted.

“We didn't miss a beat,” he said.

Fiber costs will vary depending on how much work it takes to bring a line into a building, among other factors, but Anderson's private line costs between $800 and $1,000 each month, Hannau estimated. The company also pays for high-speed fiber Internet, but he said the cost is well worth it.

“We've got to have it,” he said.

That sentiment is why U.S. dark fiber providers alone are expected to be playing in a $1.3 billion market by 2017, according to industry research firm IBISWorld.

Installations have picked up across the country. The Wall Street Journal, citing research from CRU Group, reported that 19 million miles of fiber were installed in 2011, the most since a 2000 boom driven by bandwidth speculators.

Growth drivers

Driving Fibertech's expansion in Connecticut, Hurley said, is the growth of businesses as well as their ever-increasing need for bandwidth.

He estimates that two-thirds of the company's recent growth has been lit Ethernet service in metro areas.

With a few exceptions, fiber has largely remained a commercial product. Hurley said it's more cost effective for providers to focus on the commercial market, where users are densely situated and in need of high bandwidths.

But for numerous businesses, fiber has become the norm.

Middlesex Hospital in Middletown uses a fiber connection to back up patient and other records at a disaster recovery center in Wallingford, said Michael Grous, senior systems engineer at the hospital.

Like Anderson, Middlesex Hospital's line is dedicated, which is required by health privacy laws unless data is encrypted.

“We don't want that stuff going over the Internet,” Grous said. “It's patient information.”

While dark fiber makes economic sense for the hospital's larger facilities — five have dark connections — it wouldn't make sense to use it for the hospital's 15 smaller offices, Grous added.

“The anticipation of needing to scale up is a big factor,” he said. “A small doctor's office doesn't need dark fiber. It's not cost effective.”

Gen Re, a Berkshire Hathaway global reinsurance subsidiary, uses two dark fiber lines to connect its Trumbull data center to its home office in Stamford.

Jeffrey Small, second vice president of information technology at Gen Re, said having two dark fiber lines, which each transmit 10 gigabits per second, virtually assures the facilities will remain connected at all times. And the connection is fast.

“Currently, our round trip delay between Stamford and Trumbull is one millisecond,” Small said. “Because the delay is so low, applications will run as if the data center and home office are in the same building, even though they are 35 miles away.”

The beauty of having a dark fiber connection is that upgrading the bandwidth is solely up to the user, he added. It gives the company more control over future scale-ups.

Increasing bandwidth simply requires adding equipment on either end of the line. That costs money, but the provider doesn't charge any additional fees like it would under a lit service agreement.

Small said the price quotes Gen Re got from providers for both dark and lit service were similar. That, combined with having more autonomy over its network, made the decision to go with dark fiber lines an easy one, he said.

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