“It’s a little like building a house.”
That’s a simple, if imperfect, way Orange County Broadband Authority Chair Jim White describes the county’s efforts to bring high-speed internet to its citizens.
“This past year, we’ve been building the core network, the fiber infrastructure,” he said at last week’s authority meeting. “That’s a little like building a house’s foundation, walls and roof.”
That “foundation” is a core network of fiber running 55 miles from Eheart in western Orange County to Wilderness Shores in eastern Orange County. There’s also another 50 miles of additional fiber network the county can access through lease agreements that provide service redundancy and connectivity.
The next phase—which the authority took steps to complete at its virtual meeting May 5—is like installing the electrical, plumbing, heating and cooling systems. “The systems that really make the house function,” White said.
Those systems are the nine interconnected sites around the county housing the electronics (“the brains”) to light the network, White said.
Once those are connected, the authority will have the capability to begin serving customers.
“That’s the last layer,” White continued with his simile, “selecting the items that will go into the house that serve the needs of the family. Think of it as selecting the furniture and appliances, connecting the power to the power company and the water to the water company.”
At that point, the house becomes a home.
“It goes from being a shell to meeting the needs of the family—in this case, meeting the needs of the residents and businesses in the community,” he concluded.
With a unanimous vote, the authority authorized staff to “build the capabilities necessary to provide high-speed internet service to residents and businesses.”
Those capabilities include: a high level of customer experience, adequately monitoring and troubleshooting network operations, installing and maintaining customer premise equipment and providing redundant access, according to the motion made by authority vice chair Mark Johnson.
“By necessity, this project has to be one of phases,” Johnson explained. “It’s not like deciding to buy a new car. You go to the dealership, buy it and bring it home and you’re set. It’s a little like the Johnny Cash song. You do it one piece at a time.”
Tuesday, the broadband authority approved an engineering contract and the purchase of routers and other equipment as it continues to put the pieces in place to deliver high-speed internet across the county.
In reviewing a timeline of completed and pending milestones for the authority, broadband program manager Lewis Foster reported the core network should be completed by June 30, with complete installation, configuration and testing done by late August. Following that, the authority will engage a number of test sites with the goal of having 100 subscribers installed and working by the end of 2020. Beginning in 2021, the goal is to connect 20 new subscribers every week, he said.
In the meantime, there are still a number of issues to resolve, few of them technological or mechanical.
White said he’s working on developing pricing models and tiers of service to meet a range of broadband needs. He said the average entry point of the service should meet the needs of 80% of all families and businesses with a minimum download speed of 25 megabits per second and a minimum upload speed of 5 megabits per second. “Anything not at those levels is not considered broadband,” he said.
“We want to connect the most people for the least amount of money in the shortest amount of time,” Foster explained.
To do that, the authority is likely to look at those closest to the core network to maximize infrastructure and investment.
White noted it may seem unfair, but if the authority can connect 10 to 25 houses by running a short line from the core network, that would yield a higher benefit than running a longer line to fewer homes.
“We’ll be looking at locations where lots of service can be provided reasonably efficiently because of the business aspect of this,” White said, noting the authority will rely on GIS data and information to help inform its decisions.
Before it’s ready to connect any paying customers, the authority also must partner with a vendor to provide customer interface and support services. It issued a request for proposals from qualified providers last week.
“Orange County doesn’t have 50 guys in white vans or operators on the phone at 2:30 a.m. if your service goes out,” Johnson noted, suggesting it would take the chosen vendor four to five months to become completely familiar with the authority’s operation, equipment and system.
Authority members also discussed the importance of outreach and messaging to the citizens.
“As soon as we get clarity on the costs, we need to push that out to the community as a whole,” District 5 Supervisor Lee Frame said.
White agreed. “A key part of this is outreach and informing people about the availability and they type of service and costs,” he said. “It’s as new to them as it is to us.”
The one thing that’s not new is the need.
“We’ve been getting a tremendous number of calls and emails from people who really need this service—especially now they’re home more,” Foster added.
“We’ve known we needed this, but COVID-19 has turned up the wick in terms of what we’re hearing from people,” White said.
“What we’re doing is something people have been asking for for a long time,” District 4 Supervisor Jim Crozier noted. “The is the equivalent of a utility—it’s a necessity for everyone and it’s extremely crucial for us to move on with this project.”
“There have been steady comments coming to the board for years, but with the current situation, it’s made it more exigent,” Johnson added. “People are really feeling the need. It’s no longer about just streaming Netflix. It’s about people working from home and learning from home.”