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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > October 2003
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Vol. 23 No. 9 — October 2003
The View from the Top Left Corner
The Siren Song of Fiber
by Michael Schuyler

You must understand. This network is perfect. It's not broken. There's plenty of bandwidth. In fact, in small branches we're talking serious overkill here. A branch with—what, seven computers total?— gets a full T-1 to the computer room? They could all download critical updates at the same time and have plenty of room left over for streaming their favorite shockradio station. I've got the usage graphs to prove it; it's pathetic!

I did have a scare here last week. We have a small branch on the S'Klallam Indian Reservation up north. The tribe decided to move the library about 300 yards south to make way for building a new Native American Cultural Center, one wing of which will contain a new library.

The mover told Suzanne Jones, our librarian, that he could move the building without so much as breaking an egg. So she put one on the window sill and waited to see what happened. Well, first they cut the T-1 wires, then they moved the building. The building still has the same address, so the issue was, did this constitute a "move" as far as CenturyTel was concerned? I lived in fear from March, when I first heard about this, until July, when a red light appeared on the Digital Service Unit (DSU, a digital modem) after they cut the wires.

Weeks passed. The red light was still on.

Finally came Telco day so Al went on a prized road trip (he gets mileage) up there to meet the Telco guy and hook up the T-1. The branch didn't have any poweryet, so they strung an extension cord across the road so we could plug in the router and the rest of the equipment. Al came back fuming at the "doofus" and wound up going back a second day when CenturyTel finally sent a competent tech to deal with the cable pairs. He finally called me up on his cell phone and, without introducing himself, simply said:

"It works!"

Well, I didn't believe it until I saw the green light was on, whereupon Suzanne and crew checked in several thousand books in the dark. They just had one extension cord, so there wasn't enough power to do anything but DSU, router, hub, and one PC. Well, that's one months-long worry out of the way. By the way, the egg didn't break, but she cheated: It was hard boiled.

The light kept going from green to red every night when they unplugged the extension cord. Finally the branch got a foundation poured beneath the building, steps to the door, and full-time power.

When the Cultural Center is built the library will move in, but at that point we won't have anything to worry about, because the tribe is installing fiber-optic throughout the new building.

Megabit Speed: 1.5 vs. 400

The S'Klallams are hooking to the Kitsap Public Utility District (PUD) fiber ring (The Ring!) that's going as far north as the reservation boundary. It's kind of ironic, but the first useful fiber for us in the county will be at the Little Boston Branch, one of our smallest. I thought they had plenty of bandwidth on a T-1, but with nearly 300 times the bandwidth I suspect we could beam out there for meetings rather than drive a vehicle and earn the coveted mileage check.

Fiber! Pure light runs through pure glass in strands the size of a human hair. It's as fast as, well, light! (Well, not quite.) But it makes the term "bandwidth" not an issue just as the last few years' progress have made "disk space" and "memory" not an issue either. Barriers have fallen, and this is a big one.

Consider this: Your interior networks run at probably 10 Mbps (megabits per second) or 100 Mbps. (In reality, they're slower, but that's their rated speed.) But once you get onto a WAN your typical speed is 1.544 Mbps. One and a half versus 10 versus 100. The bottleneck is the WAN. For most of today's purposes that's OK, but that's still the narrowest part of the road. It's like having a super freeway in each branch, but a two-lane country road connecting them. Even if you're rich enough for a T-3, that's 45 Mbps and costs thousands of dollars per month. Enter fiber and you're at 400 Mbps to start. If you want to do a dollars-per-megabit calculation, fiber wins in a rout.

So here we have a perfectly working T-1 network. Each node costs close to $300 per month in recurring charges; that's our raw WAN costs. I'm not quite sure what the recurring charge will be with fiber. Al assures me there is no recurring charge, thus taking my network cost from over $25,000 per year down to something like $5,000 to hook up a couple of branches nowhere nearThe Ring. Other folks assure me there will be a charge, though much less than I'm paying now. Obviously, there are still some unknowns here.

Then there's the Internet service provider (ISP). Right now we pay for two T-1s, from Qwest and AT&T; each averages about $900 per month. (We are "dual routed" so in case one link goes down, the other takes over.) But 3 megabits on The Ring will cost us about $300 per month, so quoth the ISP. Now I'm starting to do some math in public here and I'm thinking this might be a pretty good business case, only there's one small problem.

You have to build out to the fiber. That means digging tunnels under streets and stringing fiber on telephone poles. The way it's done is to get several businesses in on a "loop" (The Loop) that hangs off the original fiber ring (The Ring). These businesses form a consortium to share the costs of The Loop. At our central facility where the computer room is, it will cost about $7,000 to get to The Ring. The hospital and a bunch of doctor's clinics want on as well, so that will reduce the cost for The Loop for us, especially since we are pretty close to the beginning.

Although the S'Klallam branch won't cost us anything because the tribe is wiring fiber into the building, I need to spend hook-up money on Central, which currently doesn't cost anything. That means I'm about to spend a bunch of money to hook up our smallest branch, which is already on T-1 overkill.

Fiber Is Inevitable

But the fact is, it makes sense. We need to have faith that spending some up-front capital today will result in benefits in the future. What we really want to do is hook our large branches up to The Ring. Most of those won't have fiber for several years, but when they do, we want to be ready. We want to say, "We're already on The Ring. Just give us an address."

From today's usage perspective, it's a waste of money. But look what's coming: IP phones, full-motion video from branch to branch, distance conferencing and education, and thin clients running on terminal services are just a start. Indeed, one of our CLECs (Competitive Local Exchange Carriers) wants us to move all our dial tone onto fiber and store our telephone switching equipment at a co-location facility in downtown Bremerton. This also means no more intra-branch long distance calls; they all get channeled as extension calls through your own private network running on the fiber ring.

The issue is this: If everything has an IP address and is hooked to a fiber network, then it doesn't matter where anything is physically. You could shove dial tone down fiber to any branch from a central facility; therefore, you could take advantage of whatever company was offering the cheapest dial tone. The local telephone company (the ILEC: Incumbent Local Exchange Carrier) no longer has a monopoly because it has the cable pairs on telephone poles. With competition to provide "local" telephone service, plus "number mobility," your actual service can come from anywhere.

This whole scenario spells Doom to the ILECs. Today we have especially the younger generation forsaking the security of home phones for cell phones, and competitive companies installing fiber right under the noses of the local phone companies. Only the most nimble ILECs will survive.

It looks to me like all but two branches will be within shouting distance of either The Ring itself or a Loop within a couple of years. Two branches in the hinterlands may have to wait a bit longer, but these things have a way of working themselves out. Hinterlands don't always stay that way. Urban Growth Area means just what it says, and these two are in them.

The bottom line is that fiber is in our future. We're not sure exactly when, but we're starting right now.


Michael Schuyler is deputy director for the Kitsap Regional Library System in Bremerton, Wash. His e-mail address is
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