Using City Conduits and Fiber

innerduraFuturePathGroupI’ve seen a number of cities enact ordinances that require that empty conduit, or even conduit with fiber be put into open trenches. Some of these ordinances even insist that carriers use these assets rather than dig up the streets to put in new fiber. I can understand where the cities are coming from that do this. They are running out of underground rights-of-way in many places. Inevitably when somebody builds a new underground utility they end up cutting and disrupting the existing utilities. Cities also are getting tired of seeing the streets dug up over and over again to put in more fiber and streets are often not restored to their original condition after fiber construction.

But these city assets are not always as valued by carriers as much as cities might hope. Consider conduit. Having empty conduit can save the most expensive part of the cost of constructing a new fiber network. Trenching to install fiber under streets is incredibly expensive. But having empty conduit is of no use to a carrier unless there is access into and out of the fiber where carriers need it.

City-built conduit is probably very useful for a carrier that wants to build a fiber ring, But if a carrier is building fiber-to-the-home they need a lot of access to the fiber and want to have fiber splices multiple times per city block. They will want a handhold or some other way to tap into the fiber in the conduits wherever they have a customer. If conduit is just laid in the trenches without these multiple access points, then it is of limited use for a fiber-to-the-home system. Unfortunately, putting conduit with many handholds is a lot more expensive for a city compared to just dropping empty conduit into trenches when they are open.

Carriers have many more issues when it comes to sharing city fiber. Carriers share fiber all of the time. You can find examples in almost every sizable city where carriers have gone together to build fiber. They either band together to pay for a new fiber route, or else one carrier builds a route and then sells or leases dark fibers to other carriers.

So if this is a common occurrence, what is wrong with a city offering shared fiber? The big difference is that with private fiber somebody is clearly in charge. There is generally only one carrier that has actual physical access to the fiber, and this is done to help guarantee network integrity. Carriers love the idea of sharing the cost of building fiber, but they are uninterested in sharing fibers in a situation where they feel there aren’t iron-clad network controls on who has or doesn’t have access to the fiber.

Carriers have learned over the years through painful experience that when multiple companies can get access into fiber that bad things are eventually going to happen. Some technician is going to snip the wrong pair of fiber to make a splice, or in the worst case some renegade technician is going to sabotage a competitor. This is clearly a case where too many cooks will spoil the pot. For these reasons carriers are very careful about who they will share fiber with. I’ve seen carriers build second, duplicative routes rather than share fiber with somebody they don’t trust.

When carriers share fiber the sharing is accompanied by thick contracts that clearly define the rights and obligations of all of the parties involved in the sharing. There are almost always a guarantee for the quality of service on the shared fiber, expressed in terms of the maximum amount of downtime that can be expected – and this guarantee is generally backed-up by specified cash damages.

But governments don’t do that. When cities share fiber there are very few rules about how that is going to work. I can’t think of a carrier that would consider using a fiber without the accompanying controls on quality and integrity. Nobody wants to be on a fiber they don’t control and for which there are no guarantees of up-time or guarantees about how quickly outages will be fixed.

Before enacting these kinds of ordinances the city ought to have a long discussion with the existing carriers in their city. There are probably ways to make what they have in mind work. But to do so would probably mean partnering somehow with a carrier who would then act as the master controller of the fiber network.

If cities insist on forcing carriers to use city-provided conduit or fiber, they are going to be surprised when carriers don’t seem very interested. My fear is that there are a lot of city-built conduit and fiber that is going to end up like that bridge in Alaska that went nowhere. If a city builds builds something that carriers don’t want , then they have built something that might never be used.

2 thoughts on “Using City Conduits and Fiber

  1. Thanks for this post; interesting and important stuff. There’s all kinds of handbooks floating around that advise local governments on how to get overbuild fiber, and they often seem to put a priority on mapping and sharing existing conduit, and adopting dig once/lay conduit ordinances. I finally found a technical manual from one city that was considering such an ordinance (maybe SF, can’t recall exactly) and it showed that in order to be useful for FTTH applications, conduit had to have curbside access vaults every 100 feet or so. Wow! So much for the idea that for almost zero marginal cost you can get fiber-ready ROW!


    • I have to applaud cities for trying, and what they want to do sounds very sensible at the 30,000 foot level. But it generally costs a whole lot more than what cities are willing to spend to truly make either conduit or city-owned fiber really valuable to an overbuilder.


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