Roanoke Fiber Network aiming to lure business with bandwidth nearing completion

Published: Mar. 30, 2016 at 7:55 AM EDT
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Five days a week across the Roanoke Valley there are a select group of people working on their own specialized task.

On Kimball Avenue contractors were burying a plastic conduit down the center of the road. At Blue Ridge PBS, support techs were testing equipment and wiring systems together. In Downtown Roanoke, maps and schematics are strewn out across a table as supervisory eyes review them.

Those individuals are all working on one common goal, the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority's new fiber network. And the work is almost complete. 98% complete to be exact. When switched on the network will provide access to high speed broadband internet many companies need.

The work on Kimball Avenue is low key, just a few workers are present on the site. There are no fancy signs or ways to let you know what's going on. The cut into the road surface made with a diamond blade saw is a relatively small one. The plastic conduit will be laid in the cut, and network that is being pieced together has the potential to be huge.

With its high-tech, data-driven set up, Blue Ridge PBS wants in on the new fiber optic network. Making TV requires some serious technological muscle.

"We took one look at this and said wow," Blue Ridge PBS President And CEO James Baum Said. "Everyone is clamoring for more bandwidth, the saying among television executives today is you can't be too young, too handsome, or have too much bandwidth."

Where you see hay around town there's a good chance some of the nearly 50 miles of fiber optic conduit is buried below. The larger fiber conduit carries four smaller tubes within it, and those tubes will carry dozens of individual fiber strands that transmit data at the speed of light with lasers.

The fiber ends come up above ground ant locations where the Authority has selected to put the equipment required to make the system work. Blue Ridge PBS was selected in addition to locations at the Roanoke Higher Education Center, the Salem Data Center, Mid-Atlantic Broadband, and East Park.

"There are 288 strands of fiber coming in here," Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority President and CEO Frank Smith said while showing off the equipment at Blue Ridge PBS. "If the fiber is the nerves, this is what I would call the brain and we've got five brains located throughout the system."

The fiber network is available right now to organizations in the government, education and business spectrum. The Authority has already signed on ten customers and the plan is to fully light the network and bring the first major customer online in the first week of May.

Network speeds will be up to 15 times better than what's commercially available now, and the network will allow customers to bring their own systems online. According to its website, the Authority "believes there should be more alternatives at a more affordable price, and is focused on an economic development, quality of life, and service based model, rather than a profit driven model."

"We want to become an economic tool for growth in the area," Smith said. "We want to be that extra arrow in the quiver that we use for economic development."

The fiber network is designed to be open access which means any number of service providers can compete using the infrastructure in place. Upon roll out the network will not be available for residential service, but the open access model means that anyone with the money to buy into it, can.

Smith said two companies have expressed interested in providing residential internet through the network in the future, but for right now, the focus is on getting businesses and commercial customers hooked up. For customers with big data needs, this system can be make or break.

"The volume of data just continues to grow and the question is you have to be able to have the pipes or the back haul transport to be able to get that up and down the highway of information," Smith said.

In the case of PBS, its primary product, video, is almost entirely data driven. Many of the operations are moving to network based operations which allows PBS stations across the country to string themselves together. A fiber system needs to be robust and it needs to work, but most importantly, it needs to be there.

"This is as important to us as infrastructure of the city, as rail, and highways and bridges and interstates, all of that's critical, but so is bandwidth," Baum said.

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