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Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Fiber-Optic Future For Norwich

As the dispatcher calls the volunteer department, a computer prints a picture and exact directions and sends them electronically to the responding station or even to a portable computer in the firetruck as it speeds out of the station bay.

Imagine a fire call to the city central dispatch for a remote location within the city limits.

That would be one way a municipal fiber-optic network could help city agencies and the general public, said John Bilda, general manager of Norwich Public Utilities.

NPU went out to bid Wednesday on installing a fiber-optic telecommunications system in the city that would connect all schools and municipal and public-utilities facilities, including automated sewer pump stations, hydropower units and electrical transformers.

The 32-mile, $2.4 million network would snake through the city in two main loops, with several spurs from the main loop lines to connect more remote systems.

The network, Bilda said, would send data 600 times faster than current speeds along privately owned data lines, and do it more reliably.

Mayor Benjamin Lathrop called officials of the city-owned utility "visionaries," dating back 104 years to when the city took over by eminent domain a private electric and gas company and converted it to a public utility.

"They were visionaries then, with the (public water) reservoirs and all," Lathrop said, "and by exploring what they did all those years ago to move their city forward. It's impressive. Our utility has done wonders."

Immediate plans would have the fiber-optic network serving only Norwich government entities - adding in agencies such as the Uncas Health District, Three Rivers Community College and Norwich Free Academy - and would provide internal communication only within Norwich borders.

A teacher in a Norwich school could draw a line on a computer and have it automatically appear simultaneously on so-called smart boards in every school in the city. But all the sites would still use AT&T for telephone service and 99 Main - the city's Internet provider - for access to "the outside world," Bilda said.

NPU plans to create wireless hot spots in key locations, such as downtown, that would be available to the public, Bilda said.

Expanding the network to local businesses and residents could follow. NPU plans to apply to the state Department of Public Utility Control for permission to offer service, according to the resolution approved by the City Council Monday.

Bilda couldn't say when that might occur, but he said the cable to make it possible could be in place by next summer. The rest could depend on the DPUC licensing process and the city's desire to open it up to the community.

NPU is a pioneer in municipal fiber-optics installation in the state, but not the first, Bilda said. About five years ago, the town of Manchester helped write the law that now allows NPU to move forward.

DPUC spokeswoman Beryl Lyons said no other city-owned utility has applied for a state license to offer fiber-optic broadband to the general public. Only the few municipally owned utilities that own their own utility poles would be able to tackle the project, she said.

Groton Public Utilities launched its own for-profit cable television company, Thames Valley Communications, three years ago. The cable television and computer broadband company now has 7,000 customers in Groton city and town, and the Groton portion of Mystic and Gales Ferry, said Carl Andersen, marketing director.

Andersen said it has taken longer than expected to get permission to build on poles outside the Groton Public Utilities service area.

NPU owns all its utility poles and many underground utility conduits in the Norwich Business Park.

NPU has no plans to start a cable television company or become an Internet provider or telephone company. Rather, Bilda said, the network would allow NPU and other city entities to greatly consolidate telephone service, buying one telephone-trunk service line from AT&T and using its own fiber-optic network to hook up to numerous telephones and computers.

One of the utilities' aims is to save on its telephone bills. "We're doing this to stay in business," Bilda said.

The city plans to continue to use 99 Main as its Internet provider, but city computers would be able to communicate with one another much faster and at higher capacities.

If the fiber-optic service is expanded to local businesses and the public, Bilda said, NPU would not make it a for-profit venture. Ten percent of the gross revenues would be turned over to the city, a deal that dates back to the founding of the public utility.

If Norwich wants to venture into cable television or telephone service, the City Council would have to authorize the move. Bilda said the initiative would have to come from NPU constituents.

"We want to do whatever the community wants us to do," Bilda said. "This provides the backbone for any of these services to happen."

At least two downtown business owners are counting the days when fiber-optic broadband data transmission service might be available.

Mike Sullivan, owner of 99 Main, said his company has been the city's Internet provider for 11 years. He said the connection would enable him to offer high-speed fiber-optic Internet connections to local small businesses that can't afford the high-speed T-1 lines that are now the standard for high-speed connections.

Fiber optics would far surpass T-1 capacities, Sullivan said. The smallest fiber cable can transmit data at a rate of 155 megabytes per second, while a T-1 line sends at one megabyte per second. Slower DSL lines are still the standard for home and small business use, he said.

Brian Kobylarz, owner of Tele-Cine Productions, served on the initial focus group NPU established several years ago when utility officials first started looking into expanding to cable television and fiber-optic broadband services.

Kobylarz said any business with electronic data needs would benefit. He produces high-definition videos and films for industrial, business and government entities.

Fiber optics would give him quicker, better quality transmissions of video clips to production studios "miles or hundreds of miles away."

Kobylarz, who also chairs the Downtown Neighborhood Revitalization Zone Committee, envisions the fiber-optic network attracting high-tech businesses to the downtown.

"Major corporations have realized the benefits of this technology for many years now," Kobylarz said. "The business model says this is the right thing to do. What we are doing in Norwich is the first step. It will be a better step when it begins to open up to the business community. That will spur economic activity and will attract new and better businesses to the area."

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