Open Cape Shows What The Stimulus Should Be

The OpenCape project has applied for $32 million in funds, with an $8 million match, for a $40 million project to bring reliable service to Cape Cod in Massachusetts through a fiber-based middle mile project with microwave for backup and also for public safety.

Too many people assume that the place is wealthy and well-served, Art Gaylord, vice chairman of the project and director of information services at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, told me. “The Cape suffers from the impression that it’s the summer playground for the rich and that it’s full of tourists with money. The reality is that although those people do come out here, there’s also a year round population of about 250,000 (it rises to three or four times that in the summer).”

The project got its start about three years ago when a tree branch took out phone service on a large portion of the Cape, including 911 service, Gaylord said. The community already had concerns about the reliability and price of phone and internet service.

Talk to your state

So they decided to fix the problem themselves, and began the project even before the stimulus was announced.

Gaylord said that the group started as three or four people who formed a 501(c)3 charitable organization to explore the possibilities. Chief among them was OpenCape president and the prime initiator of the project, Dan Gallagher, CIO of Cape Cod Community College.

As there were no competing projects, the towns, the public safety organizations, and educational institutions all signed on. One of the co-founders had been the president of the Cape Cod Tech Council, a group for small businesses.

OpenCape has been talking to the State of Massachusetts for some time, but the state is particularly interested in a project in the western portion of Massachusetts, so OpenCape does not expect to be first in line, but would love to be second if the opportunity arises, Gaylord said.

The states will be publishing their reviews of stimulus projects at the end of this week, and Gaylord said he hopes for good news then.

Involve stakeholders

In addition to the small business group, the Cape Cod Tech Council, the OpenCape project involves numerous other stakeholders.

The stimulus act defines key institutions, known as “anchor institutions” in Title VI, section 6001, paragraph (b) 3 in this way:

schools, libraries, medical and healthcare providers, community colleges and other institutions of higher education, and other community support organizations and entities … organizations and agencies that provide outreach, access, equipment, and support services to facilitate greater use of broadband service by low-income, unemployed, aged, and otherwise vulnerable populations; and job-creating strategic facilities located within a State-designated economic zone, Economic Development District designated by the Department of Commerce, Renewal Community or Empowerment Zone designated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or Enterprise Community designated by the Department of Agriculture

Paragraph (b) 4 adds public safety agencies.

OpenCape involves schools, universities, libraries, hospitals, local governent, the Cape Cod Police Chiefs Association, as well as individual consumers. Elected representatives of the area at all levels of government have also been supportive.

“All of the CIOs of the regional hospitals have been supportive of the effort,” said Gaylord.

Gaylord said that when working with local government, he enjoyed talking IT department to IT department (but then, since he’s an IT guy, that would naturally be his preference).

Another thing he said that OpenCape did right was “we made an effort throughout the process to be geographically inclusive in the area. We have people from up and down the Cape and out to Plymouth.”

Get started early

It started with a single public meeting. “The first thing that told us we were on the right track was when we held a meeting to see who would show up and over 100 people showed up. That showed us there was real interest.”

As the project progressed, members identified key stakeholders went to work.

“Writing the grant application was more work than you imagine,” said Gaylord, who has written grant proposals before. “I’ve done a bunch of proposals in my career to the NSF, NASA, Defence Department — but this particular application for this project took more effort than all of the rest combined.”

Find an ISP partner

The project initially called for a wireless microwave backbone but with stimulus funds, OpenCape has decided to “do it right”, Gaylord said.

OpenCape needed a partner to build and manage the fiber. OpenCape selected its ISP partner through an open RFI process (.pdf press release) and RCN, the competitive cable provider, won the bid by demonstrating both eagerness to be involved and competance in building and managing fiber networks.

In retrospect, Gaylord said he’s pleased to have an ISP involved. “One criticism of the broadband stimulus was how can you trust millions of dollars to a board of amateurs. How will a couple of academics and a doctor know how to run a network.”

Of course, the institution whose network Gaylord runs can at times be one of the most data-intensive in the nation — the criticism might not be valid, but Gaylord understood that it could be perceived as valid by those who did not know the Cape and the WHOI.

RCN brings two fiber paths, one to Providence, Rhode Island, and one to Boston, and it bring more to the project too. “RCN brought us a whole lot of expertise that we did not have, especially on some of the practical questions. We had not planned initially to go into the telco COs, but they said we have to do that because that’s where everybody connects now, and that we cannot run fiber to every small business. In addition, COs have emergency backup power and strong buildings.”

RCN also knew the telco-grade equipment. While Gaylord and others knew all about LAN gear, they had not purchased carrier class routers or optical switcing gear.

The 501(c)3 will own the network, and RCN will pay to operate it for 25 years,. OpenCape will get 40 percent of the fiber and no one ISP will be allowed to have over 20 percent of any segment of the network.

OpenCape is the sort of project the stimulus was designed to encourage, and anyone who wants to build a similar community project should start now.

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