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September 201

How Meshed Fiber, City Projects, and
Co-opetition are Powering the Future of New York’s Metro Network

How Meshed Fiber, City Projects, and Co-opetition are Powering the Future of New York’s Metro Network

Strolling Manhattan’s Times Square around dinner time is the experience of a lifetime.

The sheer BIGNESS of the place practically knocks you over: the insanely tall skyscrapers all crunched together; the three-story-tall billboards and videos; the banter and laughter of the crowd; the melodious music flowing from the theatres and clubs we pass; the smell of food from street hawkers, pizza joints, and the many ethnic eateries.

The fact that New York City functions at all is miraculous.  How do its 1.6 million inhabitants sustain themselves on this island of steel?  How do the 24,000 eating establishments (restaurants, delis, cafes, and drinking bars) get their food provisioned each day?

These are questions Wikipedia can’t answer — and there’s no way City Hall clerks and tax collectors can keep track either.  New York is a walking/breathing testimony to what works today.  Thousands of new restaurants will disappear next year.  Big deal: failure is the other guy’s problem.  Besides, the street smart will surely capitalize on the “next-big-thing” 15 minutes before its novelty wears off.

It’s no surprise that New York’s networking scene is as complex as the City itself.  But in my interview with Walter Cannon, ZenFi’s VP of Sales and Marketing, he brings it all down to earth.  He captures the tempo of opportunities and challenges in delivering fiber for mobile, WiFi, IoT — you name it — to the city’s downtown and surrounding boroughs.

Among the many details Walter explains are: antenna problems; the crazy construction costs; a city-wide Wi-Fi network case study, “co-opetition” among carriers; and the desperate need for a meshed fiber network to house source signals and efficiently distribute metro traffic for the next wave of data/mobile build-outs.

Dan Baker, Editor, Top Operator: Walter, ZenFi sounds like a brand name invented last week, but I understand the company has root in a business going back 70 years or more.

Walter Cannon: Yes, Dan, the founders of ZenFi and our sister companies go back to the 1940s when Hugh O’Kane Electric started as an electrical contractor in a garage, and we still work out of that same garage.  And over the years we came to own the land and buildings around it.  But the construction side of our business is still the biggest of all.

In the 1980s and 90s our fiber network grew with the explosive growth of companies like MFS, Global Crossing, and Level 3.  Soon enough we became a go-to fiber construction company in the City.  Today, we serve just about every major carrier — AT&T, Verizon, Time Warner, and Castle/Lightower, being our biggest customers.

In 2003 a customer came to us looking for a New York City network they didn’t want to own.  That opportunity enabled us to launch our Lexus MetroConnect business that ran 80 miles of fiber through the city.  We eventually sold that business to Lightower in 2010, after which Crown Castle bought them.  So our chief co-opetition is now a major customer.

Over the years we have designed/constructed over 2,000 nodes of outdoor DAS and 800+ miles of fiber in NYC.

Can you give us a quick rundown on the way mobile is distributed in a big city like New York?

Well it begins with big microwave dishes and macro sites served by rectangular antennas on the sides of metro buildings.

The next step down are the outdoor DAS (Distributed Antenna System) nodes or o-DAS.  In a major city these antennas are mounted 16 feet above ground on street lights or utility poles.  Everywhere in NYC you’ll see 2 to 3 foot antennas on top of street lights and all the big mobile operators — T-Mobile, AT&T, Verizon, Sprint — deploy this way.

Now the city itself builds these poles.  Believe it or not, the city even has an Arts Department that worries about keeping the city streets aesthetically pleasing, and telling what the color of the pole shall be.

Generally two types of city fiber networks get built: enterprise connectivity and mobile.  The enterprise connectivity network usually runs up major avenues to link corporate headquarters buildings with branch offices, disaster recovery, etc.

The mobile networks are built in fiber “patches” that feed back to a single signal source.  For example, in NYC, a provider typically builds fiber, say, to serve Times Square only, but may not have fiber from Times Square running to the Upper East Side.

What’s the competitive landscape for fiber look like?

I’m sure the laws of competition in New York are similar to those of other big cities.  Truth is, fiber providers need to cooperate as much as they compete.

Here, carriers are looking to deploy tens of thousands of smart remote devices — small cell, outdoor DAS nodes, future smart light poles, and IoT is on coming too.  There’s no way that one company can do all that.

ZenFi is a fraction of the size of the $4 billion a year Crown Castle — definitely the connectivity leader for mobile carriers — but still, we have a healthy
co-opetitive relationship with Crown.

It boils down to having the right relationships and facilities at key locations.  ZenFi provides connectivity in 30 to 60 days even in areas like Brooklyn and Queens where there are inherent delays due to Verizon’s monopoly in the outer boroughs.

It’s our relationships with major carriers like Verizon that allow us to sometimes do things others can’t.

Since ZenFi is a relatively small business, how do you fund your fiber rollouts?

People ask us all the time if we are building our fiber network on spec.  The answer is “no”.  Very few companies can afford to build out networks in New York without a major funding sponsor.

Fortunately we recently won a very large city-wide project called LinkNYC that calls for replacing half of the payphone sites in the city with Wi-Fi kiosks.

ZenFi is providing all the infrastructure for LinkNYC — the fiber, the base station hoteling, and some 15 Agg-POPs that aggregate the signal for this Wi-Fi solution.

Wow, building Wi-Fi sites throughout the city sounds like a wonderful project.  What’s the lowdown on LinkNYC?  How’s it being funded and built?

Dan , it’s truly amazing.  We surveyed and found 14,400 payphone sites across the 5 boroughs of NYC — and LinkNYC calls for replacing 7,500 of them.

The catalyst for LinkNYC is delivering broadband to underserved communities.  Mayor Bloomberg got the project rolling a few years ago.  The project is a Private / Public partnership where Citybridge is providing 1GB WiFi, free VOIP calling in North America and charging stations throughout the fiber boroughs.

More importantly, ZenFi’s build plan (over 400 route miles of fiber) will create a dense, accessible network in NYC unlike any other that has been built to date.  Hence, our strategy for a Network of Neighborhood Networks to facilitate growth of all Wireless applications, including WiFi and Cellular.

The long range goal is as you travel through the City, you should never lose your Wi-Fi signal.  But of course, making that happen requires a significant investment and a lot of coordination.

The money to support the investment comes from the two 55-inch tall digital advertising signs on each kiosk.  The project is divided into three tasks.  One contractor deploys the kiosks; another manages the digital advertising; and ZenFi provides the physical infrastructure, including fiber.

It’s great when the city funds mega-projects like LinkNYC, but what if you’re a greenfield carrier who wants to come into the New York market: how can they break in?

Rob a bank... better yet, own a bank!  Dan, let me give you a data point that may shock you.  We recently were involved in an o-DAS construction project: one traffic signal pole was going to cost over $300,000 to deploy.

Every construction company here is a union shop — and we are, too.  And we pay the same union wage rate that Crown or Extenet pays.  You gotta love those guys, but the prices are what the prices are.

This is why you need to hire an expert versed in the municipal laws and someone who knows how to save costs.  For example, NYC has regulations that say: if you do a certain amount of digging in the road, then you need to pave the whole street.  Oh, and by the way, that construction needs to happen during off-hours and with union labor.

This is exactly why people come to us.  We understand the nuances of big city construction and how to avoid a lot of “gotchas.”

With the high construction costs in the City, how in the world can relatively new applications, the likes of the IoT, get deployed?

I’ll tell you this: a lot of IoT vendors haven’t got a clue.  They come to us expecting to pay only $100 a connection.  It’s laughable.  Even if you want to put a small cell device on top of a bus shelter, there’s no way you can get copper to that location.  And as I said, fiber construction costs $40 a foot and that doesn’t even count putting an antenna on top of a building.

Today, the only way IoT players can have a presence is to cut corners.  One of them I know is trying to track all taxi drivers in Manhattan using only one antenna on top of one building.  Believe me, a lot of these IoT guys don’t have as dense a network as you’d expect.

Realistically, the only way they can deploy today is to piggyback on somebody else.  Many are working with wireless service providers who already have an antenna on a building.

If IoT catches on in a big city like New York, it will require some serious infrastructure deployments.  For sure, offloading to Wi-Fi is the most economical route — much cheaper than deploying a small cell or outdoor DAS.

Walter, with the high expense and serious demand for new services, what’s the future look like for expanding networks in New York?

Well there’s a huge densification issue that’s arisen out of 4G and now 5G and soon to be the release spectrum (CBRS), the mobile operators need a better way to deploy.

Mobile providers talk about deploying tens of thousands of both outdoor DAS and small cell units — and all of them are being fed by fiber.  Trouble is, the high expense limits them to adding only one to two thousand devices a year.  There are city restrictions on how much any one provider can deploy in a year.  And the way these networks are deployed, the mobile operators don’t really share facilities.

At ZenFi, we’ve thought about the issue and believe the answer is a meshed network — a dense, accessible fiber network that integrates with base station hoteling.  That fits well with the needs of advanced mobile, Wi-Fi, and IoT.

A meshed network allows any carrier to use our infrastructure to reach what we call “fiber-to-the-X”.  And integrated into that is the need to house the signal source.  So we have integrated into our network of neighborhood networks a power cooled shelter.  That way, an AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint — whoever — can house their signal source and can concentrate their base stations there to reach 20 kilometers around the city.

Enhancing our ability to deliver a meshed network is our in-house, construction facilities project management team.  We can deliver a full turnkey solution: lay the fiber, house the signal and base station, and use centralized locations, such as a 60,000 square foot warehouse on Long Island City.

Will your mesh network allow operators to share facilities?

Yes, they will share the housing piece and share the antennas.

The problem of building to patches is solved too.  There are about 15 to 16 different neighborhoods, so we use “express networks” that route traffic from these patch networks back to centralized aggregation points or the base station hotel where we design a space and provide a carrier with a power cooled shelter.

This is not a five-9s data center, by the way, but it serves its purpose of providing a robust shelter to house base station devices and equipment.

The meshed network sounds like you’re paving an important path for the future.  But there are other considerations a carrier should worry about as they break into the New York City market.  What other factors are important in selecting a fiber provider?

I think there are three other key factors carriers need to think about:

  • Breadth of Coverage — Certainly an important consideration is the size of fiber network the provider can leverage.  ZenFi already has close to 300 miles in the ground.  And through the LinkNYC project we’ll add probably another 100 to 150 miles to our total.  So when we’re all done, our New York metro network will be the size of Crown’s.
  • What’s more, we are connected to every major data center in the metro area — for both dark and lit services.  Our partnerships with Cross River Fiber, Hudson Fiber Networks, and Epsilon allow us to reach all the major COLOs and have a presence in every POP.  In the near future, we will be able to provide Type 2 connectivity to places like Ashburn, Virginia and Chicago, other places where they may need cloud connectivity.

  • Efficiency — Having broad coverage is not enough though, because if your fiber provider can’t provision efficiently, you may end up paying more than you should.
  • For example, by working with the fiber providers, we were the first to deploy a special spider cable technology that allows us to access our cable from anywhere we want.  By the end of next year I will have over 80% of the intersections in Manhattan with an accessible 12 strands of fiber available at each location.

    So what can I do with that?  I can run into the building nearby.  With just a fiber pair, I can reach a lot of nodes and almost any intersection.  And these are in dense population areas such as Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx.  Think about the costs you can save with this versatility.

  • Time-to-Market — Finally, speed of deployment is crucial to getting the best value.
  • I signed a contract yesterday and delivered the circuit today.  For major connectivity points, that’s what we can do.  And the secret is we have pre-provisioned service to the top 144 circuits serving the 30 COLO cities in the New York/New Jersey metro.

    And in projects requiring construction, our relationships with key operators and internal project management capability can be extremely useful.  And you, as a customer, gain control because you can rely on one fiber supplier who manages the soup-to-nuts project, so time-to-deliver is optimized.  And when we need to use outside construction crews, we can subcontract that.

Walter, many thanks for this great briefing.  You’ve not only explained the power that meshed networks will bring to the New York metro, your ZenFi case examples and mini-tutorial on the challenges of big city fiber networks make for some highly interesting reading.

Copyright 2017 Top Operator Journal


About the Expert

Walter Cannon

Walter Cannon

As the Vice President of Sales and Marketing for ZenFi, Walter Cannon leverages over 20 years of technology sales and executive management experience in the enterprise and financial marketplace to lead the sales team in efficient delivery of network solutions that enable customers to grow their businesses more effectively.

Prior to ZenFi, Walter served as the Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Metro|NS, where he effectively developed sales strategies that delivered results.  Before Metro|NS, Walter was the Director of Enterprise Sales for Lexent Metro Connect, where he was responsible for growing Lexent’s core business.  Walter previously served as Vice President at TCG SecureZone and helped forge key relationships and partnerships with numerous business and enterprise clients.

He received a degree in Liberal Arts with a focus in Engineering and Mathematics from Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.   Contact Walter via

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