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Interview with Jeff Wilson, IT Director of Holly Springs

IT Director of Holly Springs, Jeff Wilson
Jeff Wilson is the IT Director for the Town of Holly Springs

Q. When was the decision made to build a fiber network in Holly Springs and why?

A. The Town installed fiber to connect its own facilities such as town hall, police, fire, and public works directly using its own town-owned fiber backbone for high-speed Internet and telephone. Doing so allowed the town to control its own bandwidth without having to rely on third-party commercial providers. Some background to this decision is as follows:

The Town was at a crossroads of what to do related to facility interconnectivity needs and the need for increased broadband speeds. Access to faster speeds wasn’t a problem, and we had a really good relationship with TWC Business Class (and still do!) on determining solutions for growth. However, during the due diligence processes of looking at what reoccurring expenses would be, and fitting those with long-term needs of the town, it became obvious that we need to look at all providers and all options, including what some surrounding municipalities had already done, which is to build our own infrastructure. To do this we hired a well know infrastructure consulting firm, CTC, to look at a very high-level analysis of what we needed, what facilities would be coming online over a five or so year period, a picture of the perfect world of connectivity to all facilities, parks, public areas, etc. This analysis was presented to me right at four years ago and I then presented it to the Town Council at the annual planning retreat. That presentation was for them to take a look at the high-level analysis and determine if there was an interest to go through the process of a full business case and cost-benefit analysis. They approved, and the business case was presented to the Council around May or June of that year and unanimously approved to move forward with full engineering design and RFP. The final engineering and RFP was under a requirement of a 10 year payback using conservative numbers where we conservatively increased speeds to each facility the first year and never increased for the next nine years, increased our Internet speeds, and assumed no new facilities were coming online. The ROI was very positive using a conservative model and we were approved to move forward.

The goal of the timeline for construction was to complete and operate the network around the time where the current TWC fiber metro and Internet circuits were due to have their agreements expire. Our conservative model was JUST for interconnectivity with facilities and with having a direct connection to the statewide MCNC NCREN fiber network for Internet connectivity. The payback model was never based on any revenue streams, though the analysis did discuss the possible benefits of having available dark fiber or conduit space for an economic development driver, but was never a focus. If any use of dark fiber by a private company were to happen, all funds brought in from those projects were to be dedicated back to network maintenance and expansion.
The fiber has gone from a basic interconnectivity to facilities and the Internet to an organically growing project where there are almost limitless possibilities and solutions that we are finding possible.

Q. Do you agree with those who say fiber is the new utility following water, sewer, gas and electricity?

A. Absolutely! Town governments are not unlike private companies where information management is key to our success in providing quality service to our customers. High-speed data communications — whether its direct Internet access or internal data storage — is relied on as a key utility in our town operations.

In fact, fiber is a large part of the infrastructure to just run those other more traditional services to efficiently operate the utilities. Why not consider it a utility as well? In any community, Internet access, whether over fiber, copper, or wireless, is required for job searching, applying for benefits, applying for jobs, operating a household, educating children, etc. For us, we operate the fiber as another utility for our facilities, and the fiber is actively being planned and installed to connect our sewage pump stations for more reliable data transfer to the central office. That is a move from using wireless as the primary method and moving to using the wireless as the backup solution. We also are going to use the fiber to install cameras to monitor equipment operations and to assist with repair crews triaging any situations that are occurring at the pump stations that they are prepping to respond to. We are also adding local wireless at these locations to reduce the need (and cost) for utilizing cellular communications for laptops and other mobile devices that technicians are having to use to look up maintenance records, work orders, operational manuals, etc.

Q. How many miles of fiber have been laid, and how many of those miles have been “lit” so far?

A. We currently have about 20 miles of fiber [as of mid-January], and all but one mile of the fiber is lit and operational. The Town’s IT department operates the fiber, and we also try to utilize internal resources to expand the network and make connections when necessary. Town IT staff is trained on fiber splicing for small jobs at facilities and splice locations to reduce the cost of contract splicers responding for small work. The one mile of fiber that is not operational yet is our connection with Apex. Their fiber is hanging on a utility pole, and ours is in a vault at the base of the utility pole. All we are waiting on is the splicer to connect, which should be this week or next.

Q. Where does the Holly Springs network end and the Ting network begin?

A. Ting is leasing dark fiber where we have excess capacity in our backbone network. There wasn’t any public purpose or financial benefit, and definitely no positive ROI, for the town to extend our network into the neighborhoods or beyond the backbone and distribution network locations. Ting owns everything inside the neighborhoods, and in numerous locations where our backbone doesn’t reach where they needed it to. Providers look at dark fiber as a way to accelerate the time to market and to simplify the builds in already congested rights of ways along our highways and streets. Again, I want to clarify that Ting, and any other provider using the network, is just leasing excess capacity or “dark fiber.”

Q. Is Holly Springs seeking other fiber Internet providers than Ting?

A. The town’s intent in building the fiber network was solely to accommodate its own governmental operations. However, just like a town park whose primary purpose is free and open access to all people, but can be rented out for a private party for a fee, the excess fiber capacity in the town’s network can be dedicated to private data providers through long-term agreements. We are open to anyone who wants to enter our market. We will, and have, provided the same level of guidance and support, even for existing providers. We are provider neutral and are excited for any interest in providing broadband services to the community. Services are driven by resident and business demands, so if another provider chooses to enter the market, then awesome! I do want to clarify that Ting, nor any other provider, are operating any fiber they are leasing from us on our behalf or as a provider partner. The fiber they lease is dark fiber not connected to any equipment on our network, and they fully operate all aspects of it. If we incur any expenses, like splicing, we are reimbursed for those expenses. That is the same for any provider.

We aren’t actively seeking out any other providers, and the introduction to Ting was made after discussions on how to become a gig-community right after the Google Fiber and AT&T gig fiber announcements for some of the other Triangle communities. This was driven by citizen requests when there was some interest in answers to why we didn’t get Google Fiber with our robust fiber infrastructure.

Q. How has Holly Springs been utilizing its fiber network?

A. Holly Springs utilizes the network for data and voice connectivity of all its facilities (police, fire, town hall, parks, public works and public utilities) in a secure and reliable manner without a monthly recurring charge. Also, we are running a backbone for point-to-point wireless, running security cameras, backhaul to our Internet provider, interconnection to municipalities for public safety and redundancy purposes, smart city initiatives (ongoing projects for telemetry system connectivity for our public works facilities and stop light synchronization), public wireless in as many places as possible, access at non-profits for low-income citizen services, live streaming of sports fields, cloud services, backup of town data, and other things I have likely overlooked.

Q. Is the community benefiting from fiber Internet, and if so, in what ways?

A.The community is benefiting through a reduced operating expense for the day-to-day town operation and for the added benefits of providing free access to the Internet via a public wireless network in most public gathering locations. These places include town hall, almost all parks, Main St, and Holly Springs Food Cupboard. Our public wifi is not throttled and is hugely popular. We are very often getting requests for expansion of the wireless network, and having the robust fiber network allows us to evaluate every location for feasibility.

Q. Is the Town of Holly Springs promoting the network as a tool for economic development?

A. Interestingly, it promotes itself. However, we do have the opportunity to utilize it for proposing alternative connectivity for businesses interested in coming to Holly Springs. A major component of that is the design for a direct splice point to the MCNC dark fiber network that we built in the initial design as a bridge to what we termed “getting off the island.” This opened up, successfully, a “bring your own provider” alternative option. A lot of major providers in NC, outside of just incumbent providers, lease fiber from the MCNC dark fiber backbone. We provided that connection point that can take businesses and their selected provider to major data centers and allow them to customize whatever package of services they work out with their provider. This helps companies who don’t really want an Internet connection, but rather a backhaul option to their central office data center for connectivity to their corporate resources.

Q. Could you explain some of the ways the network is already helping Holly Springs attract new business and development?

A. Ting is a great example of a new company that was attracted to the area based on our fiber network. They currently operate in two other cities in the US and have brought in investment dollars from Canada. I am of the opinion that more choices for consumers is a good thing. There has been a lot of interest in the dark fiber connectivity and it is part of what opens the door to discussion. New business and development takes a long time for site selection and creation of proposals, so at this time we aren’t aware of site selection being completed for any projects that this has been a part of. Of course, we always include the proposals and serviceability of the incumbent providers because they are a huge part of the overall town infrastructure and services that are available to businesses. In short, we don’t make it a major focus and just make it a part of the bigger infrastructure picture for business options.

New residential developments are keenly aware of opportunities to work with providers, like Ting, to build in their neighborhoods. We have heard that broadband offerings are a big deal when development occurs. We don’t put any emphasis on our network as what could be used to assist a provider, but what we have heard is that just the forward thinking of the town as far as infrastructure growth is an attractive feature for residential and business development. We can’t provide services, and have no interest in being a provider, so it is up to new and incumbent providers to market their product and attract developments

Q. How much has Holly Springs invested in the fiber network, and will it be investing more in the future?

A. The total investment is about $1.9 million. We will be continuing to invest in the expansion of our fiber network for our public governmental purposes such as when new or expanded town facilities are brought online, when opportunities for interconnectivity and redundancy become available with regional communities, when we expand the connectivity of our sewer pump stations to create a smarter internal network, for future water meter reading infrastructure improvements to a real-time read instead of drive-by read system, for the use of fiber for synchronization of stop lights, when new parks are opened, as local non-profits who assist low income residents with available services request access, as the town needs data services in centralized locations that can reduce the need and cost of mobile aircard based data services, and as we are introduced to other incredible uses of the fiber that we seem to continually find are being discovered and had never been thought about by the town. If Ting or other providers can help offset some of our costs by utilizing some of the unused fiber strands along the way, that gets us closer to our goal.