Thanks to Jeff Hoel for providing the transcript for episode 58 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast with Paul Meyer on economic development and the dark fiber network in Lakeland, FL. Listen to this episode here.
Lisa Gonzales: Hi, and welcome again to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I’m Lisa Gonzalez.
Midway between Tampa Bay and Orlando lies Lakeland, Florida, and its some 100,000 residents. We learned that Lakeland has operated a dark fiber network for years, supplying broadband infrastructure to the Pope County School District, municipal facilities, and local businesses. Today, Chris talks with Lakeland’s Fiber Optics Supervisor, Paul Meyer. Paul describes how the community started supplying fiber connections, and how it takes advantage of opportunities to continually expand the fiber network. Lakeland is one of the many places that quietly offer dark fiber in the local community to save public dollars, serve education, and encourage economic growth.
Chris Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Today, I’m going to be speaking with Paul Meyer, the Fiber Optic Supervisor for the City of Lakeland, in Florida. Welcome to the show.
Paul Meyer: Yes, good afternoon, Chris. Thank you.
Chris: We’re excited to lean more about what your community’s been doing, in terms of building a fiber optic network. But I always like to start by giving listeners a chance to learn a little bit about the community — those that aren’t familiar with Lakeland, Florida.
Paul: Well, Lakeland is in the center of the state. We’re located almost equal distance between Tampa Bay and Orlando.
Chris: So, between Tampa Bay and Orlando. What’s Lakeland like? Is it an agricultural community? Is it primarily defined by any particular economic activity?
Paul: I would say we’ve probably got a little bit of everything. Lakeland is fortunate — even why I decided to take up residence here. It’s a small community, but yet it’s close to the, you know, a larger metropolitan area. We’ve kind of got the best of both worlds. That we have the, you know, smaller city characteristics, but yet we have the amenities of, you know, living close to that metropolitan area.
Chris: And you’re about 100,000 people. Is that right?
Paul: Yeah. Just shy of 100,000 residents.
Chris: That’s a good size. I went to high school in a town about that size. So I’m pretty familiar with it. It’s just big enough to have a lot of interesting things to do, and yet small enough to feel cozy.
Paul: Yes. That’s correct.
Chris: The City of Lakeland has its own electric utility — as a fair number of towns and cities in Florida do. Is there any particular interesting story as to how that came about?
Paul: Well, Lakeland Electric has been around for a good number of years. I believe it was — I think around 1905, or somewhere around that timeframe. And I’ve read a couple stories, and it’s been a little while ago, but I think it — you know, privately the electric business was started. And for whatever reason, it just wasn’t surviving. And Lakeland decided to give it a try. And now, you know, 100+ years later, it’s running strong.
Chris: Right. It’s always interesting to see how these things are described. A number of municipal utilities describe how they created their utility. But Lakeland notes that it purchased its utility to start. And so, it’s just a slightly different approach than we’ve often seen.
I am curious, then — so, it operated for about 100 years, and then started getting involved in fiber optics. And so, what was the original motivation for the utility to get — to start building these communications links?
Paul: Yeah. How it started, I believe, is that, you know, with a municipal-owned utilities, other such cities in Florida, that may be a little bit bigger or recognizable — the City of Jacksonville — the Jacksonville Electric Authority — they started putting fiber into their substations for communications back in the early nineties. And I think Lakeland kind of modeled that network — or looked at that network, and modeled it for their own use. Lakeland started probably about 1995 or so — kind of in the boom where a lot of companies got into the game, for installing infrastructure and getting into the communication business.
Chris: And the first links, they were mainly for the utility’s own use, right?
Paul: Yeah. All the fiber that Lakeland Electric started with was run between their substations, you know. As you know, substations are strategically placed in neighborhoods to distribute the power. So what they did is, they would run the fiber from one substation to another, all the way throughout their service territory, in addition to the power plant. And that would provide their communications for their SCADA and for their relaying.
Chris: And it means that they have a fairly robust set of paths. Because, as you said, these substations are geographically placed specifically to cover a lot of the community, and to have a balance. And so, as I understand it — this is a similar story we’ve seen elsewhere — where someone affiliated with the school district knew that the utility was doing this, and said, hey, you know, this may actually help us, because at the schools, we need these better connections, and the utilities got these better connections, maybe we can, you know, “have a date” — is what it seems to turn into.
Paul: Yeah. That’s exactly what happened with Lakeland. And that was a little bit before my time. But somewhere in the area of — I think it was 1997 — Lakeland Electric and the Pope County School Board entered into an agreement for Lakeland Electric to provide dark fiber to and in all of the public schools within the service territory of Lakeland Electric. The service territory — where the city, their territory is about 75 square miles, the service territory of Lakeland Electric is about 260 [square] miles. So it’s a pretty good-sized — pretty good-sized area. And I think there’s just shy of 50 schools that we ended up in selling fiber to.
Chris: Unlike some of the utilities that have gotten a lot of coverage for doing fiber optic services, you’re really sticking to the dark fiber. Right? And you are not actually doing anything to provide services over those lines to the schools.
Paul: No. The schools took care of doing their own thing. They’ve got some personnel that are, you know — have the experience. And what they use the dark fiber — I found was kind of neat. What they use the dark fiber for was to provide communications from one school to another, or to broadcast throughout. Whether you — all the schools in the area, they’ll have studios. So, for example, if, maybe, the third grade wanted to put on some type of play, or wanted to show what they’ve been doing in their school, they can broadcast that throughout, you know, the other schools, to the third graders, or throughout.
Chris: There’s always an interesting assumption that schools need really big, fat pipes — big, fast connections to the Internet. And I think what we’ve found, in terms of talking to community after community, is that it’s far more important that these schools have connections to the other schools in the area at very high capacity than that each individual school is connected to the Internet at a high capacity. And so, having these dark fiber links has been tremendous in many communities because it allows schools, basically, to ramp up, to have unlimited capacity between each school, without having to, you know, raise taxes to pay for the cost of doing so.
Paul: Yeah. Correct. That’s true.
Chris: And so, now, this network, then, over the years, was expanded beyond that to all municipal facilities at this point.
Paul: Yeah. Lakeland, starting out with the substations, and, really, with the project with the schools — that allowed the city to really grow. They, in turn, decided that, you know, that would be a great cost-saving, with their — with the infrastructure that they have — and can, you know, expand. They can, you know, they can set aside, you know, not paying the local ILEC there, but they can, you know, again, with the experience that they have in-house, that they can provide the equipment and provide their own dial tone, their own Ethernet, you know, their own ISP circuit, and what have you. So, yes, we’ve expanded. You know, not just the electric department, but we take care of the water department, the wastewater, the police department, the libraries, the fire stations, the traffic departments. Anything that you can think of within the city, we support the communications.
Chris: Right. And, in fact, the traffic’s been kind of a big deal, as I understand it. I know that FDOT — Florida Department of Transportation — has played a role in other communities in terms of unique partnerships, that have allowed FDOT’s money to go further, to connect more signals — AND allowed a local government to expand its fiber. So, that — you were able to take advantage of that as well.
Paul: Yeah. Not so many years ago — you’re right — the City of Lakeland entered into an agreement with the Florida Department of Transportation to install an ITS network — an Intelligent Traffic System — throughout our service territory. We made ready parts of our existing network. But we also, to get to these intersections, we installed close to another 50 miles of cable sheath in the area. And I think, when we were all said and done, we hit about 175 intersections throughout the area. And now, we’ve — I think the count is probably up to about 220 intersections that we have connectivity to now. So we’re able to use those, you know, in storm purposes and what have you. But we’re also tied into the local Sheriff’s Department, where we, in turn, forward those links to their control center. So, when they have — you know, they’re an emergency operations center. So, whenever there’s any, you know, hurricane or other type of, you know, type of activity going on, they have visibility to those intersections as well.
Chris: As we’ve seen in some other communities as well, it sounds like the local hospitals and the healthcare industry are starting to make use of the investments that the city has made over the years.
Paul: Yes. That’s correct. Lakeland Regional Medical Center — we’ve partnered with them a number of years ago. They just ** their expansion. The area that they’re at, they have, you know, the main hospital, but they also have several smaller buildings located, you know, within that neighborhood of the main hospital. And then they also have some that are, you know, maybe a mile or two away. We were able to help them out by providing government fiber between the buildings, to help them with their communications. Their communications — generally, you’re looking at imaging and what have you, so it takes a large amount of bandwidth to do that. So the dark fiber that we are able to lease them — that saved them a lot of money, from going — you know, that would otherwise go to the local ILEC.
Chris: It’s always good to hear a story, in modern-day healthcare, where something is becoming LESS costly. You know, you don’t hear that every day. So, it’s always — it’s good to know that there are some things balancing the higher rates. What is some advice that you might give to other communities who would be looking at trying to have some of these benefits by building a fiber network?
Paul: There’s no limitation to fiber. It’s just the equipment that’s on the end. Fiber’s been around now for a good number of years now, and it’s going to continue to be the provider for that communications. A big part of the infrastructure, of fiber, I think is, if you’re going to involved with it, it needs to have the, you know, good documentation. You need to have good maintenance of it. Because, with technology, the speeds and the bandwidths, all increase. So it’s very important to keep the records good. And when you’re doing your maintenance, you do the best you can with it, …
Chris: And what sort of records?
Paul: Records? We keep not only a physical record of where the actual cable sheath is, but within that cable sheath, all the fiber strands, we have a database that shows how all the fiber strands are all put together, who they’re assigned to, what type of dB loss, or attenuation loss, that they would have on them. You know, if it runs — whether it’s one mile or whether it’s 20 miles, you want to be able to see that route, and to see what the attenuation is throughout that span.
Chris: And are you continuing to expand your network over time? Or are you at a place where you feel pretty good about it, and you think it will stay at the same scale it is?
Paul: Well, now, we’ve got — we’ve grown to about 320 miles of cable sheath now throughout the service territory of Lakeland Electric. I would almost say that it grows every day. Every day that we’re out there, we’re doing maintenance, or we’re adding to it. I mean, just today, I know that we installed two laterals to — one was to our wastewater treatment plant, and another one was to our water treatment plant. Both laterals were going to extend to the main gates to that property, so they would have communications out there for their card readers, for their cameras. And if there’s a guard check out there, for their telephone and computer access. So, yeah, we’re always expanding.
Chris: Right. It’s interesting to me. I was recently speaking with someone from a local county about some of the things that they had fiber optic access to, and, you know, some of it’s pretty pedestrian. You know, making sure that a building is climate-controlled well, and being able to monitor that. It’s just — it’s amazing how many different things that are necessary for a local government to make sure that everything’s running smoothly.
Paul: Yeah. You’re correct. It’s not just about ** or the ISP circuit that you’re looking for. We have many facilities that we’re running on controls. Even — we’re looking at a project now, just in some of the lakes, just to control the runoff from the lakes. The — I guess you could say the quality of the water — they’ll have these monitoring stations at the edge of the lakes. And we’re now getting ready to install fiber to these areas, so that the guys can, remotely from their office, they can control, and they can see what’s going on there.
Chris: Is there anything else that we should know about Lakeland, before we end the show?
Paul: Florida just decided to have its twelfth state university. And that university is going to be called Florida Polytechnic University. And it’s going to be located just north of town, from Lakeland. So, Lakeland is pretty excited to have the science and technology that that’s going to be producing.
Chris: Last week, I was speaking with Jim Baller, who has represented a lot of these municipal networks over the years. And he noted that when Lafayette, Louisiana — who now has a rather famous fiber network serving everyone — But when they originally built their electric utility and water utility, that led to them getting a University of Louisiana school, the — now it’s ULL, the University of Louisiana Lafayette. And so it’s — you know, it’s one of those things where, if you’re going to building a modern school, you have to build it in a community that is well-governed, that has the — all the infrastructure that is necessary to support it.
Paul: Yes. I know one of the things — one of the things that the University is looking for is — there’s — let’s call it a LambdaRail. It’s just a communications link that goes out to hospitals, to universities, that links up, let’s say, the hospital here in Lakeland with the hospital in Georgia. And it provides folks from each hospital or university to have access to information throughout their — that network.
Chris: Right. It’s a clever name, because the wavelengths are commonly called lambdas — in the scientific parlance. And rail, obviously.
Chris: And rail is, just actually — I mean — played a very important role in developing Florida as well. So it’s a — you know, it’s a good, relevant name for your situation.
Paul: Yes. Correct. The city really made a good move to install and continue its growth. I can’t imagine what they would spend if they had to contract that out, versus doing it themselves.
Chris: We run into this all the time, which is, it’s hard to come up with a sense of what the value of the network is, because the cost of trying to run — trying to lease like gigabit circuits throughout the area that you serve — I mean, not just in Lakeland but the larger area that the electric utility serves — it’s incredibly prohibitive. And it’s only because you run the circuits yourself that — you know, once you’ve laid the fiber, it doesn’t make a difference if it’s 10-megabit or 10-gigabit, once you’ve got the fiber there.
Paul: Yeah. That’s true. Just like the substations, you know, that are sitting in the neighborhoods to provide power, The same in the city, you know, with all of our departments. I think we’ve got about 14 core data switches. And we have — they’re hooked up by 10-gig links throughout. And they’re all diversely routed. And we have two data centers that we have, where we disperse from there to all the remote switches. So we’ve got a pretty good network in place. And you’re right, I can’t imaging having to pay for those 10-gig links.
Chris: And I think it’s worth noting that even though incumbent large telecommunication companies — they know what they’re doing. Some of them have been doing it for a hundred years. And they’re certainly very competent. You know, we saw, with 9/11, both in Washington, DC, and in New York that telecommunications infrastructure was far too centralized. There was not enough redundancy. And what we’ve found in talking with you, and, as well, with Martin County, and some of the other folks, is that, if you’re in an area where a hurricane can come through, of who knows what force, you know, you have to be ready. And you — you can’t just count on some distant company having made redundant investments to make sure that if the worst thing happens to your particular town, that everything will keep working.
Paul: Yes. That’s correct.
Chris: Verizon answers to shareholders. And you-all answer to the taxpayers. And they want to make sure all the police and fire stations are still connected after a hurricane comes through. So — let’s just hope that doesn’t happen.
Paul: We like to keep things running smoothly. That way, we stay out of the spotlight.
Chris: You know you’re doing your job well when you’re staying out of the spotlight. I really appreciate you coming on the show to share some of these stories. I think a lot of the people just aren’t aware of how many things communities like yours have done that are essential to running a modern city. So, thanks for telling us about it.
Paul: OK, Chris. Thank you. I enjoyed the conversation.
Lisa: For more on Lakeland’s dark fiber network, visit muninetworks.org and click on the “Lakeland” tag. On our recent post about Lakeland, you can learn a little more detail about some of the businesses subscribing to dark fiber services. We also have more about the original arrangement with the Pope County School District. You can also follow the “dark fiber” tag. And you can also look at our community networks map. We have a large number of dark fiber networks documented on the map. Thanks again for listening to the Broadband Bits Podcast. If there are issues related to telecommunications that pique your interest, we welcome your suggestions for future shows. E-mail us firstname.lastname@example.org . You can follow us on Twitter, where our handle is @communitynets. This show was released on August 6th, 2013. Thank you to the group “Break the Bans” for their song, “Escape,” using Creative Commons. Thank you for listening.
This article is apart of MuniNetworks. The original piece can be found here