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Fiber optics hold promise of replacing aging copper network

Fiber optics hold promise of replacing aging copper network

Erie's Velocity Network already has laid 400 miles of fiber, most of it for commercial customers. Now the company is shifting its focus to providing similar service to residential customers.

The tiny strands of optical fibers — 48 of which are bundled in a protective black cable — are no bigger than threads.

Without the fine coating that covers each glass fiber, the strands are sharp and dangerous to the touch.

But they are also filled with potential, according to Joel Deuterman, CEO of Erie-based Velocity Network.

Each of those 48 strands has the capacity to provide high-speed internet and phone service to 32 homes, and the ability to help replace an aging network of copper wire that provides phone and internet service to most of Erie County.

Velocity, which started building fiber-optic networks in 2008, already has laid 400 miles of fiber, most of it for commercial customers.

Now the company is shifting much of its focus to providing similar service to residential customers.

VNET Fiber, the company's name for its product, is being offered in three areas: West 32nd Street, from Auburn Street to Pittsburgh Avenue; West 32nd Street, from Pittsburgh Avenue to Sterrettania Road; and a portion of White Pine subdivision.

Velocity has identified nine other targeted areas that could receive service once enough customers have registered to confirm their interest.

Evidence of the company's commitment to the technology, which can offer speeds ranging from 150 megabytes per second to 1 gigabyte per second, can be found in a warehouse on West 21st Street, where a couple dozen giant spools, each wound with 2 miles to 5 miles of fiber-optic cable, await installation.

But why would a residential customer want to dump technology that's already working for internet packages that range from $60 to $80 a month or high-definition television packages that range from $25 to $95 a month?

And if building a fiber-optic network is such a good idea, why isn't Verizon, the region's telephone service provider, building a network of its own?

Deuterman's response to both questions is that copper wires are quickly becoming obsolete.

"Copper wire is greatly affected by the elements," he said. "There are problems with heat loss and interference. Many vendors are ripping it out. In many cases they won't even sell you new copper. It's too expensive to deploy and maintain."

By comparison, fiber is "the most future-proof technology I have ever seen," he said. "It's simply light traveling over glass, no electricity, no electrons. It's impervious to electromagnetic interference. Even if you think you don't need it, you need it."

That might be a sales pitch, but it's a viewpoint that's been widely endorsed.

"Fiber is most likely the next step in last-mile internet connectivity, and it's great that someone in Erie is investing in that," said Rob Prindle, an Erie resident who is information technology manager for Viking Plastics in Corry.

And while high-speed internet is available to many people via their television cable, fiber has advantages, he said.

"Cable connectivity is great for those consuming content because the download speeds are good," he said. "However, the up-speeds can be limiting — and up-speeds are especially important for anyone working from home. For folks working from home with a VPN connection to their company servers, a fiber connection could eliminate the upload delay and make telecommuting that much more seamless."

If deploying fiber to residential areas is such a good idea, why isn't Verizon leading the charge?

Although he can't speak for his much larger competitor, Deuterman suggests two reasons — first, that the company is focused on the expansion of its wireless network, and second, that the return on investment might take some time.

"We probably couldn't do this if we were a publicly traded company," he said.

Michael Murphy, a spokesman for Verizon, addressed questions about the expansion of its fiber-optic internet and TV service, which the company calls FiOS.

"We're focused on completing and enhancing our FiOS network within those areas where we already have cable TV franchise agreements in place — versus expanding into new markets or into areas outside those cable TV franchise areas," he said.

What does that mean for Erie?

"We have no current plans to deploy FiOS in Erie County at this time," Murphy said.

The telecommunications giant does, however, continue to invest in what it calls the fiber-optic backhaul, the wired connection between cell towers and the physical telecommunications network.

Does that mean the company has chosen expansion of wireless over the expansion of a fiber-optic network?

"At this point I'd generally say that we're focused on driving adoption rates of FiOS where we currently have it, while at the same time caring for the growth in wireless demand by investing in the infrastructure," Murphy said.

Jeff Parnell, executive director of Gannon University's Erie Technology Incubator, said the availability of fiber-optic service is good news for consumers.

"From a consumer perspective, more and more consumers are cutting the cable," Parnell said. "They are opting for alternative programming. This is the kind of thing that really goes nicely with that."

The advantages could be even more significant for small businesses and entrepreneurs, he said.

"They are going to be far more productive," Parnell said. "I think this is a nice differentiator for Erie as a whole."

Jim Martin can be reached at 870-1668 or by email. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ETNMartin.