This summer and fall, parts of a southeast Massachusetts regional communications infrastructure project will be available for schools, government agencies and public safety personnel to access as they serve their communities.
Through a $32 million Broadband Technology Opportunities Program grant and $8 million in matching funds, the OpenCape project has the funding it needs and is on pace to meet the Jan. 31 completion date set by the grantees.
Once the project is completed, public safety personnel could use a regional 911 dispatch system, be able to support a national mobile public safety system and have a microwave backup system for their communications.
Government agencies could share regional applications and GIS databases.
And schools could share faster Internet services and common apps.
CapeNet LLC is managing construction of the 350-mile fiber-optic network and will be selling access to the network once it's done. Ciena Corp. and Integration Partners are providing coherent optical transport and Carrier Ethernet solutions for the OpenCape Network.
So far, CapeNet has laid about 55 miles of fiber out of the 300 miles scheduled to go from Providence to Provincetown and from Cape Cod to Boston, said Dan Gallagher, CEO of OpenCape Corp., a nonprofit organization formed to spearhead the project. Another 50 miles will connect off the main line to 70 anchor institutions. Some microwave components are being built now, and a collocation center is being renovated.
In each town, the group has selected four or five anchor institutions — such as schools, libraries, town halls and police stations — to connect on a municipal regional area network. These regional networks allow small towns to access services and applications they couldn't afford before, Gallagher said.
"We have towns here with populations in Massachusetts that have 500 households, so they don't have an economy of scale to be able to really do anything efficiently or effectively," Gallagher said. "By creating this network where they're all connected together, now they have this opportunity for collaboration and aggregation of services and shared applications."
For emergency management, OpenCape is looking at a regional 911 dispatch system. It's also considering mobile public safety broadband. Recently, President Barack Obama signed a bill to establish a 700 megahertz mobile public safety system across the nation.
But that system needs to have infrastructure developed below the national level to carry it. OpenCape is designing and building its fiber network so that it's ready as soon as the government issues funds and starts building the national system.
In addition to these two pieces, the project includes building a microwave backup system for the fiber network.
"We suffer from violent storms here from the ocean and hurricanes and everything else, so we need to ensure that the public safety communications work," Gallagher said.
The microwave system is integral to the fiber, but could still operate independently if the fiber was knocked out. OpenCape frequently meets with the chiefs of police and fire departments in the region so they can work together and address their needs.
Government has a huge opportunity to collaborate and aggregate through OpenCape, Gallagher said.
One of the first apps that will be introduced is e-permitting, licensing and inspection. Someone could buy this software for the whole region and create specific town instances of it if they chose. It would run on a common back end, hardware and license.
"The savings are tremendous because of the single common support element," Gallagher said. "But everybody gets the benefit of this very advanced software for delivering services to their community that frankly they could not deliver on their own."
The Cape Cod region deals with a common water quality issue in both drinking and sea water. That's why OpenCape and its partners are thinking about creating a common regional geographic information system (GIS) database that every town could use.
Some towns could use the database, but operate their own GIS within their town. Smaller towns that can't afford to have a GIS shop and run a GIS server base could grab a seat on a regional server base.
Ten to 12 schools serve as anchor institutions because they're designated as shelters that residents go to when hurricanes and other violent storms hit, Gallagher said. These schools will be able to access a 1 gigabit per second shared Internet service.
On top of that, they'll use a connection from Internet2, a not-for-profit advanced networking consortium that provides schools with access to its high-speed network. And they can share common apps, such as learning management systems and student information systems.
When Gallagher was the CIO of Cape Cod Community College, he converted the community college from a proprietary, expensive learning management system to the open source and no-charge Moodle learning management system.
Now the college and K-12 school districts use the same kind of system, which allows them to work and learn together. These are the kinds of things OpenCape hopes to bring to education through its network.
Throughout this multiyear project, OpenCape has worked with local companies and councils to keep this project moving.
The real challenges of the project involve contracts, permitting, licensing and other things that are outside OpenCape's control. The easy part is installing the fiber, Gallagher said.
One of the ways OpenCape has dealt with these obstacles is by creating relationships with organizations that it needs to get underlying rights from.
The NSTAR power company, which has a $10 million U.S. Department of Energy grant to develop smart grid on Cape Cod, and OpenCape came to an agreement. NSTAR is helping OpenCape get licenses for poles, and OpenCape is helping NSTAR create its smart grid system by using fiber to connect to the company's power switching.
Each week, partners including the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, Cape Cod Commission, Cape Cod Economic Development Council, Cape Cod Technology Council and OpenCape meet to figure out how to take advantage of the infrastructure. And that's an important element of this project, Gallagher said.
"It's really important that people get that it's not just about building the network," Gallagher said. "You can build fiber anywhere but if there aren't people engaged and involved in trying to use it, it's not going to have the effect."