Smoke Fund Buys Net

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You could call it the network Big Tobacco built. Ground will be broken this week for a 300-mile optical-fiber backbone network in southern Virginia.

The state-funded network will bring broadband and other advanced communications services to five cities and 20 counties in the region, overbuilding telephone provider Bell South and cable operators Adelphia Communications Corp. and Charter Communications Inc.

The 144-strand fiber-optic network will be designed with open-access architecture and is scheduled to begin full operation by Jan 2006.

TOBACCO MONEY

Unlike other states, which have used proceeds from the national litigation against tobacco companies to balance state budget shortfalls, Virginia created the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission.

Part of the commission’s charge was to support new businesses in southern Virginia to lessen the state’s reliance on tobacco farming.

The fiber project, dubbed the Regional Backbone Initiative, was funded with a $12-million grant from the state commission and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration.

The fiber will be deployed along the state’s Route 58 and portions of routes 220 and 360. That will take it through cities including Bedford, Danville, Emporia, Lynchburg and Martinsburg, and through parts of counties including Appomattox, Brunswick, Charlotte, Cumberland, Prince Edward and Sussex.

The project is managed by the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Cooperative (MBC), a Richmond-based non-profit organization created specifically for the effort.

MBC brought in Omaha, Neb.-based Adesta LLC to build and operate the network. The cooperative estimates the fiber link will provide high-speed access to 19,000 businesses and 700,000 residences.

Capacity could go as high as 2 million businesses and 50 million residential consumers.

Adesta president Bob Sommerfield said video programming is “technically possible,” but added the network’s primary function is to provide telecom and data capacity.

“I suppose a provider could come in with some sort of cable network,” he added, since the project is open to all providers.

BREAKING GROUND

Sommerfield said Adesta has just ended its 60-day engineering period and will break ground on the backbone, and a network operations center, on July 20.

The company has already begun discussion with Certified Local Exchange Carriers and Internet service providers about use of the network.

He hopes cable operators, which are moving into telephony services, might be attracted to the fiber project as a cost-effective transport mechanism for phone and Internet services. The MBC estimates the backbone could reduce high-speed access costs in the region by 20 %.

MBC is also trying to negotiate an optical pathway to a tier-1 access point in Reston, Va.

The project has the backing of Gov. Mark Warner, who has stated that he wishes to make Virginia the state with the highest percentage broadband homes in the nation.

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