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Will "Microtrenching" Realize New York City's Gigabit Dreams?

BY Sam Roudman | Wednesday, April 10 2013

The imposing serrated blade of a saw cuts a line through a slab of concrete in lower Manhattan, pushing a grey slurry of runoff towards the sewer with a deafening peal. Until now, installing fiber-optic cable in the city required saws like this one to cut up a chunk of street two to three feet wide and as many as six feet deep, disrupting traffic and brutalizing ears in the process.

But the future of broadband access in New York City might be trenches about an inch wide. With the city’s blessing, Verizon started a pilot project to install fiber using a process called "microtrenching," which fits fiber-optic cables in a trench dug into the space separating the curb from the actual sidewalk. The goal of the pilot is to expand the availability of gigabit-speed fiber to residents and businesses, while reducing the inconvenience and cost of installation.

“There’s just overall less disruption,” says Chris Levendos, executive director at Verizon. The process reduces noise, blocked lanes, and cuts back on the cubic yards of debris created in trenching. He says the new process allows them to complete a project “in a matter of days, versus what would traditionally take a matter of weeks if not longer.”

At a microtrenching demonstration on Monday near the intersection of 10th Avenue and 18th Street in Manhattan, Levendos knelt down to pull a flexible sheath of orange tubing from the hinge between a stretch of curb and sidewalk. Fiber-optic cables go into the tubing, he explained, and the tubes are covered over.

"It would be unbeknownst to you that there were fiber optics sitting in this narrow space,” he told reporters.

The pilot, paid for by Verizon, is currently at 12 sites in all five boroughs, passing some 800 buildings.

Verizon hopes to have the whole city wired for fiber by 2014, and microtrenching should speed that process along.

"I certainly see the opportunity for us in the near term to be able to reach tens of thousands of customers, and potentially get into the hundreds of thousands," says Levendos.

The pilot agreement comes with a guarantee that Verizon will open up access to the conduits it's digging so that any other provider can lay its own cables in the same space. The city can, too, according to the agreement with Verizon — but can't resell access to any of the capacity it might gain.

“We’d like to make this available to as many telecom providers as possible,” says Steve Harte, assistant commissioner at New York City’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications. He says more competition in the telecom industry will mean more choice, “driving the price down for the end consumer.”

As yet no third party has signed up to provide service, which Levendos and Harte attribute to the fact that the pilot just began.

According to Harte, microtrenches have been dug mainly in rural areas, and New York City is the first major urban test case. If microtrenches are going to make it past the pilot stage, they'll have to prove themselves city tough.

"One of the biggest discussions is resiliency," says Harte. "Is it gonna stand up to the test?"

The city will judge the pilot based on a number of criteria, including speed to market, the amount of debris saved, and the quality of the service coming from the microtrenched fiber.

And New Yorkers may just have to take officials' word for it — a provision of the pilot agreement guarantees that Verizon can ask the city to consider nearly anything it discloses to officials as exempt from Freedom of Information Law requests, except the most general figures on cost savings through the project, expressed as percentages. Even inside the city, according to the agreement, only officials with a "need to know" will have access to information about how the pilot project is going.