The Rockbridge Area Network Authority (RANA) is almost ready to launch its open access network in north central Virginia, home to about 22,000 people. A recipient of the BTOP stimulus program, the main focus is connecting community anchor institutions and spurring economic development. However, it has been built to allow service providers to also offer DSL to some residents in the area.
Dan Grim, GIS Manager for Rockbridge County, and one of the driving forces behind the network was kind enough to walk us through the project. In early 2007, the cities of Buena Vista, Lexington, and the County joined forces to commission a study to determine the need for a county wide broadband network. The three jurisdictions matched funding from the state Department of Housing and Community Development to pay for the study, completed in 2008.
Grim had already consulted with local provider, Rockbridge Global Village, about using a regional network to improve public safety mapping. Rockbridge Global Village President, Dusan Janjic, suggested a bigger project and that the three entities apply together for American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding.
Richard Peterson, Chief Technology Officer from nearby W&L determined that the school needed a new and updated data center. In 2009, RANA was officially formed as a collaboration between the local governments and Washington & Lee. The University joined the group and contributed $2.5 million toward a $3 million grant fund match. With the grant fund match to improve their chances, RANA applied for a $10 million BTOP award and received $6.9 million in funding through round two in 2010.
Peterson passed away in 2011. Grim notes that without Peterson, the network would never have expanded so far and may not have become a reality. The data center was later named after him to honor his memory. Network construction started in February 2012.
Grim described several challenges RANA encountered during construction and planning. The planned network was scaled back from the original 130 miles because construction bids came back higher than expected. RANA still plans on expanding to these locations in the near future.
The Authority also ran into a unique complication when deciding where to bury conduit. The original planned route included one mile of National Forest Service Route and RANA Board Members worried the permitting process would take too long. As an alternative and to allow for more residential connections, they decided on secondary roads. Unfortunately, this led to yet another complication because property lines in Virginia go all the way to the road center line; RANA had to secure easements from property owners.
Land owners were concerned about trenches disturbing trees on their property or what trenching would do to landscaping. RANA secured most of the easements, but in places where they did not get cooperation, the route was moved across the road. The solution increased the cost of installation and set back the launch timeline. Grim recalled old articles reprinted in a local newspaper that described the same issue in 1910 when crews tried to install telephone lines. RANA Board Members went door to door to explain the process to property owners (watch the video below for local coverage).
The network will connect 53 community anchor institutions, including the Volunteer Fire Department and Rescue Squad facilities, K-12 schools and all the local colleges and universities. Public libraries and city and county government offices will also connect to the network. As an open access network, RANA will lease connections to independent providers that will connect end users. In addition to making connections up to 10 Gbps available, the network is leasing dark fiber as well.
The 63 mile fiber backbone consists of about 75% underground with a total network length of 80 miles. RANA is installing 29 DSL cabinets with fiber backhaul in an effort to encourage development to rural residential areas. Grim tells us the DSL cabinets are cross connected with CenturyLink DSL. RANA is currently providing backhaul to six DSL cabinets and Local Competitive Exchange Carrier Virginia Global Communications Systems (parent company to Rockbridge Global Village) is cross connecting into the CenturyLink telephone remotes to provide DSL service over the CenturyLink copper landlines. CenturyLink’s T1 provides backhaul for the remaining DSL cabinets. Unless we have misunderstood, this will allow ISPs to use the CenturyLink last mile copper but will not rely entirely on backhaul from the teleco giant. It could also allow later expansion for FTTH by RANA.
In an effort to expand economic development with the network, RANA is offering 84 free business drops. A variety of businesses are lined up for the drops, including attorneys, healthcare clinics, CPAs, coffee roasters, and real estate offices. Two providers, BlueRidge InternetWorks and Rockbridge Global Village, have committed to provide service on the open access network.
Recently, RANA and Washington & Lee University (W&L) celebrated the Richard A. Peterson Center, a 4,500 square foot data center that will serve the college and the network. The data center will offer service providers the opportunity to co-locate equipment for the open access network.