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District seeks help in funding fiber network
Fiber Optic Schools 2 es
Caitlen Mullins works in her seventh-grade computer literacy class on a recent afternoon at Otwell Middle School. The local school system is pitching a plan that would bring a new dark fiber network to Forsyth County. - photo by Emily Saunders

The Forsyth County school system wants to beef up its fiber intake.

But at an infrastructure cost of $13.6 million, the school district would like to share the benefits and the costs of such technology.

Having its own dark fiber, or glass networking cable, would allow the system to control interconnectivity between its 18,000 computers countywide.

Bailey Mitchell, the district's chief technology officer, has been pitching the idea to other entities that could gain from adding another dark fiber conduit to the county, which currently has about four such providers.

"The county could offer even more to data centers and technology-driven businesses looking to relocate and expand to Forsyth County," he said.

"Being part of the conduit of dark fiber would allow businesses to be in charge of their own network and would give Forsyth a competitive edge in attracting businesses."

Mitchell has met with J.D. Rusk, the county's information technology director, to discuss the benefit of dark fiber, which with its increased capacity, speed and flexibility has become more popular than copper cable.

"The dark fiber network would be a benefit to the county in performance and reliability over existing network connections," Rusk said.

"It would provide us greater control by eliminating intermediate networks and it would allow us to build redundancy networks that we don't have currently."

Control, costs are key

The school system currently uses AT&T for its redundancy, or backup, dark fiber network at an annual cost of $376,000, after a discount.

Its main network, through Comcast, is also dark fiber. The cost is less, at a discounted rate of $274,000 per year.

"Our fees to connect through AT&T are astronomical," Mitchell said. "And the kind of speed that we get is 10 times less than what we operate off of through Comcast."

The school system currently controls its Comcast fiber, ensuring privacy, safety and security.

That will change in about three years, though, when Comcast will no longer allow customers in the county to have that kind of say-so over its fiber.

At that point, the options would be limited -- choose between Comcast and AT&T for a service the system can no longer control or use one of the few companies able to offer a closed-circuit network, which could lead to a price increase.

Not happy paying a premium for service or giving up control and flexibility, Mitchell may have found a solution with Atlanta Gas Light Networks.

The company would place the 83 miles of underground fiber needed to serve at least 40 board of education sites throughout the county.

After the initial infrastructure cost of $13.6 million, annual maintenance would be about $166,000 over the course of the conduit's 20-year life span.

Need for backup could diminish

If Mitchell's goal of installing dark fiber is realized, Forsyth schools would most likely not need a redundancy system.

The underground cable is not susceptible to much, including thunderstorms, car wrecks and other incidents that can cause outages.

Having backup would allow an organization to rely on two networks, decreasing its odds of losing its connection.

William Peeples, director of sales and marketing for AGL Networks, attended a recent Forsyth County Development Authority meeting.

"We have some of the largest financial institutions in the world on our network," he said. "They cannot be down."

Peeples said the company's staff rides every mile of fiber in every location to check it daily.

If the AGL Networks fiber proved reliable enough not to need a backup system, the school system could save more than $7.5 million over 20 years.

The county's government, which currently doesn't have a complete redundancy network, could use the connectivity in place of its current system, or as backup.

"If there's a link that's down for the majority of a day, the offices that it affects are significantly impacted," Rusk said. "Having a redundancy network would give us greater uptime percentages."

While laying the conduit to route the fiber, AGL Networks would likely install additional fiber to sell in anticipation of future needs.

But businesses, local governments and secondary education facilities could tap into the resource before facing a possible surcharge for joining an existing network.

Forsyth County's computer network is slightly larger than the school system's, with nearly 50 sites including fire stations, sheriff precincts and parks and recreation.

Though the county might need additional fiber to reach offices not on the same path as county schools, Mitchell said the "benefits would outweigh the cost."

Fiber attractive to businesses

Having more than a handful of companies to chose from would also make the county more attractive to businesses.

Brenda Reid, spokeswoman for Publix Supermarkets, said the county's technology infrastructure was a selling point in the company's decision to put a data center in Forsyth.

"When we were investigating where we should place this data center, this Forsyth County location was chosen based on the fiber-optic technology that was available," she said.

"The lines that were placed there already, or were to be placed out there, were a big factor for us."

Reid did not disclose which company Publix was using for its network, or if the data center had a company for redundancy service.

But given the limited options providing the service, Brian Dill with the Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce said of any company Publix is using, "They're paying a premium for it."

For companies looking at Forsyth down the road, it could become a crowded field.

"They'll be fighting with everybody else for whatever bandwidth is left," said Dill, the chamber's vice president for economic development.

Mitchell said it's already that way.

"You really are beholden to AT&T to get served up here and they call all the shots and they determine the schedule," he said.

"It's frustrating. It works, but you really have to plan way in advance to allow for hiccups."

Leaders look at funding options

In order to fund the initial setup cost, the school system would need to include the project in a bond referendum or the next proposed extension of its 1-cent sales tax.

If approved by voters, the next sales tax wouldn't take effect until July 2011. That wouldn't leave enough time to build the conduit, estimated at a year, without a gap in service.

The county's current penny-on-the-dollar tax, which voters approved in February, won't expire until June 2013. That means if the county is interested in pursuing the technology, funding would need to come from another source.

"The challenge for [the county] as I see it, is there are so many infrastructure needs that were identified through the SPLOST process," Dill said. "It's going to be hard for them to basically take up another project like this, and really devote a lot of funds to it.

"As much as the importance is there for this, the importance on water, wastewater, roads and these other things are just as important."

Dill suggested the best bet for the school system to garner infrastructure assistance this decade may be through the health care industry and other education systems.

With Children's Healthcare of Atlanta recently buying property in south Forsyth, Dill suggested dark fiber would be a great addition for any facility it might build.

The same, he said, holds true for North Georgia College & State University's plans to expand in Forsyth.

"I know they're going to need a fiber backbone," he said.

The school system's budget is set through June 31. The county's next budget isn't likely to pass until October, though dark fiber hasn't surfaced in any public discussions for 2009.

Mitchell said he will continue to talk to groups that could benefit from the technology.

"If we can share in the cost, it would probably happen more quickly than if just the school system took on this project alone, and everybody bought into it down the road," he said.

"I want to include as many different people as possible."