Virtual Government In Virginia CityVirtual Government In Virginia City
Innovative deal gives Charlottesville an advanced network at a low cost
February 22, 2002
With two universities and an unusually sophisticated population, Charlottesville isn't typical of other small towns in the Virginia foothills of the Appalachian mountains. The city's advanced data network isn't typical of the semirural region, either.
Using fiber-optic circuits that it owns through an innovative technology swap with a regional network services provider, Charlottesville has a four-node, 8.5-mile Ethernet and TCP/IP network that's designed to be easily upgraded from its current speed of 622 Mbps to 2.5 Gbps as the city's communication needs grow. The sophisticated network gives the city a platform for a host of videoconferencing and Internet capabilities: Jail inmates can be treated by doctors miles away, students can participate in distance learning, emergency officials can train via video, Charlottesville residents can pay city bills online, and more. "The beauty of this is expandability without having to put in new equipment or protocols," which is important because the city is about to embark on the next phase of the network, says Rick Fore, director of IT for the city. The first phase of construction was completed in late 2000, connecting City Hall and the computer center in the City Hall Annex, both in the eastern part of the city, the main firehouse on the south side, the emergency communications center to the west, and Pen Park to the north, where the park administration has its offices. Copper networks still outnumber fiber networks, and will remain the predominant medium for some time to come, says Ron Westfall, principal analyst for broadband infrastructure at Current Analysis. Because very few service providers are building local or municipal fiber networks for paying customers, "upscale cities are at the cutting edge of these deployments." The first phase of the network cost only $230,000, mostly for network switches from Nortel Networks Corp. Comparable installations can cost millions of dollars because of the equipment involved and the expense of laying fiber-optic cable. Buying the switches was the city's only major expense, thanks to a deal between Charlottesville and network operator nTelos Inc. for a fiber-optic backbone. NTelos wanted to lay a fiber-optic network throughout the city for its own needs, giving Charlottesville the opportunity to trade permission for nTelos to lay its cable in exchange for ownership of part of the network. The city saved hundreds of thousands of dollars by not having to pay to install fiber cables for the network, Fore says. In the trade, the city granted its cable rights-of-way, giving nTelos access to utility poles and cable trenches in exchange for eight strands of dark fiber on a main route ringing the city. Dark fiber is a term for fiber-optic circuits that have yet to be equipped with transmission or switching equipment. So far, Charlottesville has "lit" only four of the eight strands of fiber on the backbone route with its own optical equipment, leaving four strands in reserve. The deal also gives the city ownership of six strands of fiber on several other routes, which the city hasn't yet tapped. The agreement means nTelos didn't have to pay the city any fees for the right to build its network, and the cost of building additional dark fiber into the network for the city was very small. To make the network operational, Charlottesville bought and installed four Optera Metro 3400 optical Ethernet switches from Nortel for the network's four nodes. At the edges of the network, the city put in six Nortel Passport 8600 routing switches to carry network traffic and applications all the way out to users. The network replaces a less-extensive 45-Mbps asynchronous transfer mode network that ran on fiber circuits among City Hall, the City Hall Annex, and the main firehouse. The new network extends to more sites than the old one, and its use of Ethernet as its underlying protocol is more flexible than ATM was, and its higher speeds means the network isn't as easily overwhelmed by video transmissions. Among the main applications, the city uses the network for H.323 videoconferencing, which lets accused criminals be arraigned without being moved from the jail to the courthouse, and for prisoner telemedicine in which doctors at the University of Virginia's hospital examine prisoners without their having to leave the jail. The next phase of building the network is scheduled to take place this year and next, once the Charlottesville City Council approves the funding. As envisioned, the second phase will extend the network to 13 additional sites at a cost of $240,000, Fore says. The network is part of the city's five-year strategic plan. The expansion will deliver videoconferencing to schools and fire stations for distance learning and video training. It will also deliver video feeds to libraries and recreation centers so the city can stream video of City Council meetings to those locations. The city also plans to offer citizens a "virtual city hall," through which they can pay fines and fill out forms from their homes using the Internet. "Because of the kind of community Charlottesville is, one of the things citizens expect is the use of technology to deliver city services," Fore says. "Our goal is for citizens to be able to conduct city business without having to set foot in City Hall."
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