The optical fiber network spanning Kent County—which will enable gigabit (1000 megabit) internet access to every County facility and to any home or business that wants it—is nearly complete. Despite rumors to the contrary, the fiber buildout is on schedule and on budget, according to FTS President Adam Noll. In fact, virtually the only part of the backbone network that remains to be built are the fibers serving the towns of Chestertown and Rock Hall. Noll says that construction of Rock Hall will begin in the next 2 weeks, now that plans of the existing underground utilities have been found.
Meanwhile, the company hooking up individual homes and businesses to the fiber and providing high speed internet access, Think Big Networks, reports that it is already providing service to more than 100 customers, including Dixon Valve and La Motte—the County’s largest businesses—and has many more ready to install. Mark Wagner, CEO of Think Big, says that progress has been slower than he hoped, but that it is steady. He sees no reason that they can’t connect any Kent County residence.
The fiber installation in Chestertown has been delayed because Delmarva Power, which owns the above-ground power poles, has demanded a price that FTS considers way above market rate and refuses to pay. Delmarva Power can demand such fees because FTS is not a regulated carrier in the state of Maryland (it is in other states), but Noll says one solution is for FTS to apply for regulated status, which would guarantee access to the poles. Another possible solution is to use micro-trenching techniques to put the fiber underground. In any event, Noll says that Chestertown will soon get fiber too, one way or another.
One cause of the rumors—and a recent pause in the fiber buildout—was a management reorganization at FTS, which resulted in Noll becoming president and taking charge of day-to-day operations. But the buildout is not at risk; in fact, FTS’s prospects are much larger than Kent County and are best understood in terms of that larger context.
The Kent County fiber network is just the first of what FTS hopes will become a major business connecting rural counties—in Maryland and Virgina to start with. Central to that plan is the company’s planned fiber ring connecting a new undersea cable that comes ashore in Virginia Beach to the major internet hub in Ashburn, Virginia. The ring—one arm through Virginia and the other through Maryland’s Eastern Shore—would contain hundreds of fibers, enabling County governments, large internet data centers and other companies, and residential internet providers to access or provide high speed internet.
The new undersea cable connects Bilbao, Spain to Virginia Beach and provides an alternative to cables that go through New York City (and whose vulnerability was demonstrated by superstorm Sandy). The cable is being built by Microsoft, Facebook, and the Spanish company Telefonica and will have the highest capacity of any undersea cable yet, capable of transmitting 16o terabits per second (roughly the same as 71 million high definition movies every second). It is expected to begin operation in 2018, and its presence will transform the entire region, as well as underlie the business case for the FTS ring. The ring, in turn, will be the main revenue source for FTS, but it is what enables the County networks, where the financial return is slower.
For Kent County, says Noll, access via the FTS ring both to the internet hub at Ashburn and to Europe creates a huge opportunity to attract internet-based businesses and young, internet-savvy families. And at least for now, Kent County is unique on the Eastern Shore in having that opportunity. FTS was negotiating a similar contract with Queen Anne’s County, but would face higher costs per foot of fiber installed (it’s a much larger county). Queen Anne was not willing to pay a higher price, and they additionally demanded that FTS provide a bond to guarantee completion. Noll says that it simply did not make business sense, and so FTS walked away; it will instead focus on building its larger ring and exploring opportunities in some Virginia counties.
In summary, FTS is a major internet infrastructure company that is currently building a high-speed fiber ring through Virginia and Maryland, that conveniently passes through Kent County. Think Big is the local company that connects local businesses and residences to this high-speed fiber network. This provides a wonderful opportunity for Kent County. The completed network may open the doors to economic development unlike any the county has experienced in living memory.