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Exclusive interview with OpenCape CEO Dan Vortherms

The Capewide fiber optic network is about to go live
OpenCape's backbone fiber construction is complete

Network nearing completion and what lies ahead

As part of Cape Cod Today’s continuing coverage of the OpenCape roll out, today we are joined by OpenCape CEO Dan Vortherms for an exclusive interview.

As with all Cape Cod Today virtual interviews, Mr. Vortherms’ responses are published exactly as he submitted them. We do not edit for content or space – we give our readers exactly what the interview subject submitted to us. This allows the guest to tell the story in his or her own words without worrying about anyone here interpreting their response or placing words out of context.

All the previous Exclusive Interviews are listed below.

Virtual Interview with Dan Vortherms

Cape Cod Today: The construction of your network is scheduled to be completed in June. What happens during the extended period given by the NTIA – between June and September?

Mr. Vortherms: At the recommendation of the NTIA, we requested an extension to the end of the federal fiscal year (end of September). The extension was granted in January 2013, showing NTIA’s satisfaction with progress to date on the network construction. Although original fiber construction will soon be complete, the microwave component and the additional laterals will take a bit longer. Following construction, additional time will be used for final testing and documentation of the network. If everything is done before the end of September, we will request an earlier termination of the grant and begin the close out period. The extension did not increase the cost of the project to tax payers.

Currently, all of the backbone fiber construction is complete. DWDM equipment in all 11 regeneration sites is up and running, going through final calibration and tuning. Post-constructions testing is underway to ensure fiber performance is per the contracted specifications. The first service offering for a customer has been provisioned for testing by that customer. Construction of laterals is complete to approximately 70% of the CAIs, with almost half of them completely spliced into the network, ready to receive CPE electronics when service is provisioned. The microwave network has been designed and we are in the process of getting local approvals as may be required in each of the 15 local jurisdictions where the microwave sites are located. All major data center equipment is installed and is waiting for an NStar power upgrade to the building. That upgrade is currently underway, with final commissioning of the data center equipment in the June-July time frame.

Cape Cod Today: Didn't you make a request to build more laterals? What happened? Where will they be? Will there be new additional Community Anchor Institutions (CAI’s)? If so, who will select them.

Mr. Vortherms: Additional laterals were requested based on the having money available in the grant to cover additional connections. The additional laterals were specific named locations that were reviewed by NTIA and approved through their strict environmental assessment process. They were selected from a collection based upon input from state and local governments with a particular eye towards education and public safety. They are all near the fiber backbone and were selected in part based upon ease of construction.

Engineering to determine specific designs for each of the additional CAIs will begin shortly.

Cape Cod Today: What is your relationship with the CAIs? What do you do for them?

Mr. Vortherms: The majority of CAIs are town buildings, libraries and higher educational institutions. Our interactions are more with the towns, county, CLAMS, etc. than individuals locations. Services from the Municipal Regional Area Network are being developed with the town level desires in mind. Individual CAIs can also purchase commercial services from CapeNet with their mandated discount rates for government and non-profit entities if so desired.

Cape Cod Today: As the project transitions to operational mode, what is the role of the nonprofit OpenCape? What are OpenCape’s plans over the next two years?

Mr. Vortherms: OpenCape is the owner of the network, along with the federal financial interest discussed below, and responsible for its successful operation. We will be involved in a day to day oversight of operations to ensure the network meets required performance and service level requirements. We also will continue to be active in ongoing growth of the network to see that it develops to meet the civic, public safety, and economic development needs of the region. We will encourage the use of this open access network by people and organizations looking to bring new and innovative ideas to southeastern Massachusetts, and the Cape Islands.

OpenCape will continue to explore network and service expansions as may be desired and supportable in southeastern Massachusetts, the Cape, and Islands. We want to remain responsive to local needs rather than controlled by national goals and objectives.

The OpenCape volunteer Board of Directors that resides within the local communities is an important aspect of maintaining local responsiveness. Network expansion in multiple areas to support economic growth, a continued drive to reduce the cost of government, and expansion of services will be a goal for both OpenCape and CapeNet.

Cape Cod Today: Once the grant funding is exhausted, how does the nonprofit sustain itself financially?

Mr. Vortherms: OpenCape has a revenue sharing relationship with CapeNet designed to sustain our operations and eventually fund further growth. NTIA and the Commonwealth extensively examine our funding models prior to awarding the grant.

Cape Cod Today: What is the Regional Co-location Center? What will it cost? Has anyone signed up to use it? How will it compete with other co-location centers? Who is running it? Will the group running it be setting up a customer service operation on the Cape?

Mr. Vortherms: The Regional Colocation Center has been constructed in the Barnstable County complex as part of the original grant proposal. It was built because there was a lack of a secure, managed data facility on the Cape. Local governments, schools, and small businesses all expressed interest in have such facility constructed and in using it. It also serves as the central coordination point for the OpenCape network. Operational details are still being worked out, including service offerings and pricing. Joint services continue to be discussed with other colocation center operators off-Cape.

Cape Cod Today: What are your budgeted annual costs for maintaining the fiber optic network and collocation center?

Mr. Vortherms: As with any network operator, we will have certain ongoing costs for maintaining and operating the network. OpenCape directly maintains underlying rights such as leases and rights of way access. CapeNet is responsible for ongoing maintenance of the fiber network as part of our relationship with them.

Cape Cod Today: As a nonprofit organization that gets all its funding from state and federal funds, are your board meetings open to the public? Are your minutes published? Transparency is a big issue with government funding - where do you make your budget public?

Mr. Vortherms: OpenCape is a private, nonprofit organization and meets all of its reporting obligations to the funding agencies. Not all of our funding is from state or federal funds. OpenCape was able to attract significant funds to the region for network construction to help satisfy an unmet need for robust, modern communications. Government grant funding to both nonprofit and for profit companies is nothing new and few, if any, companies open their board meetings and books as a result of a grant award.

Cape Cod Today: OpenCape’s website looks like it was abandoned last fall. The timeline, blog posts and news items are woefully out of date. Does the “abandoned” state of your site mirror what is happening as the grant runs down? What can you tell us about your site?

Mr. Vortherms: A new site is under construction. Shifting from the construction phase to operations represents a major refocus of the messaging. We have a very small staff that does not include sales and marketing people, and is focused upon completion of the network construction including final quality control audits and inspections, and the final grant close out requirements. The construction map is updated monthly or as significant work progress is completed on the network.

Cape Cod Today: How are you planning for long term maintenance and upgrades of the network?

Mr. Vortherms: Maintenance is part of our agreement with CapeNet. The core of network has been built with capacity to serve us far into the future. Additional laterals and supporting electronics will be added by CapeNet as customer driven demand requires. OpenCape and CapeNet will be responsible for the long-term growth and evolution of the network and have vested interests in maintaining the cutting edge nature of the network.

Cape Cod Today: What is your relationship with the people who own the poles and conduits where the network runs: Verizon, NStar, National Grid?

Mr. Vortherms: OpenCape has on ongoing relationship with Verizon, NStar, and National Grid as licensee of pole attachments on their utility poles and underground conduits. The relationship is excellent as they have been very supportive in getting this project done.

We will continue to interact with them on a regular basis for planned network changes, maintenance activities, construction events that require network rerouting, etc.

Cape Cod Today: What is your relationship with existing fiber networks - Comcast and Verizon?

Mr. Vortherms: We have normal business relationships with them. During construction, we have had extensive interactions and they have been cooperative. As an open access network, they, like anyone else, are able to purchase services on the OpenCape network. Obviously there is some competition but OpenCape's primary market is not the residential customer.

Cape Cod Today: What is your relationship with CapeNet? The financial relationship? The division of labor?

Mr. Vortherms: CapeNet was awarded the build and operate contract for the OpenCape network based on an extensive RFP process. As noted above, they will be the operator of the network and provide end user services to government and private entities desiring services on the network.

Cape Cod Today: When OpenCape began there was talk that you’d be working with towns on shared, hosted applications for tasks like permitting, dog licenses and other common tasks? What is the status of that project?

Mr. Vortherms: The concept of shared, hosted applications was developed with input from multiple organizations under the overall description of Regional Umbrella Services. OpenCape is enabling these shared applications through the RAN, data center, and some computer equipment. We are not, nor should we be, the exclusive provider of those applications.

For example, the electronic permitting application you refer to in the question is a project developed exclusively by Barnstable County and the Cape Cod Commission.

Similarly, we will provide a hosting location for schools but would not be providing those applications. We are working with the County and the towns to try to coordinate their use of the new resources that OpenCape is making available to them. Any entity may propose an application to be shared amongst the towns on the Cape and Islands and utilize the network and data center to facilitate that offering.

Cape Cod Today: What was the average cost to place a fiber drop at each of the Community Anchor Institutions?

Mr. Vortherms: An average cost of a connection to the backbone has no practical meaning. Connections to the backbone depend on the route to be take, availability of existing poles or conduits, and the amount of make-ready for a particular route. These factors are highly variable depending on particular locations. In choosing the initial CAIs, the determining factors were need and coverage of the area, not cost. The backbone was routed as efficiently as possible to allow ease of connection to the CAIs.

Cape Cod Today: Who determined what the Community Anchor Institutions (CAI) would be?

Mr. Vortherms: The list of CAIs included in the grant were determined by the OpenCape Board of Directors based upon meeting BTOP grant criteria. Primary considerations were at least one local government location in each town, evacuation shelters (all also schools), CLAMs libraries, and higher education/research organizations. Considerable coordination was done with each town to select the locations that could be best utilized as connection points into existing town networks.

Cape Cod Today: A CAI is not required to use the fiber drop at their location. What happens if they don’t sign up to use services on it? Does it just sit there, reflecting wasted taxpayer money?

Mr. Vortherms: We have built a highway and the laterals are the off ramps. We can't require them to be used and not all will be used to the same degree or starting at the same time. This project is building for the future as much as the present and usage patterns will change. That said, we expect that the CAI's will make use of the network once it is operational and they better understand the extraordinary resources being made available to them.

Cape Cod Today: Where does a CAI buy service to activate their fiber drop?

Mr. Vortherms: As the network operator, services are offered through CapeNet.

Cape Cod Today: Google just bought two more networks in two more locations. Has Google Fiber expressed interest in taking over the OpenCape network?

Mr. Vortherms: No, not at this time. Some discussion was fostered by local residents last fall about the desirability of Google to enter this market. The open access network features of the OpenCape network would facilitate another provider in entering the market. The OpenCape network would be the perfect backhaul platform for such a competitor in the area.

Cape Cod Today: How is this network different from Comcast and Verizon's networks?

Mr. Vortherms: Several features differentiate the OpenCape network. Open-access, higher speed, automatic failover as a default feature, reliability, and community driven nature of the company immediately come to mind. The service offered includes symmetrical and scalable bandwidth. Most interestingly, the network supports the growth of multiple last-mile connection solutions, not just those offered by a single company based upon a national assessment of needs and profitability.

Cape Cod Today: Your predecessor Dan Gallagher worked for the Community College, yet the Community College recently announced it had gone with Comcast over your network. Why did CCCC drop its support?

Mr. Vortherms: CCCC did not drop its support of OpenCape and is still actively involved in the project.

CCCC has indicated to us that they see OpenCape as an essential component of their overall plan in offering educational services to the community. We have been aware of their strategic network goals, as well as projects for which they will desire a connection to the OpenCape network. CCCC, like other organizations, strives to have connectivity from multiple network providers. It is expected that most major companies that connect to OpenCape will also maintain a connection via another provider. This has long been a standard practice where connectivity is critical to an organization’s ongoing operations.

Cape Cod Today: One of the reasons that OpenCape was build is that adequate alternative providers to satisfy the needs of the higher end customers on the Cape did not exist previously. We understand that OpenCape owns the fiber optic network. Can you sell the network now or in
the future? If you did sell the network, who would get the money?

Mr. Vortherms: Because of the federal grant, the federal government maintains a financial interest in the network as defined in the ARRA legislation. There are federal restrictions and approvals required on the sale of the network and/or any equipment purchased as part of the grant in the near-term, and the government retains an interest for many years. If in the future, the OpenCape Board of Directors were to decide that the regional needs were best met by the sale of all or part of the network, then this could be done. The OpenCape Corporation would get the money. Disposition of any proceeds would be subject to the guidelines of the non-profit status of OpenCape.

Cape Cod Today: Are any of OpenCape’s construction delays due to sabotage by competitors’ work crews?

Mr. Vortherms: No.

Cape Cod Today: Where do you see the fiber optic broadband ecosystem on Cape Cod in the next three to five years?

Mr. Vortherms: A modern fiber optic network infrastructure is essential to the Cape's economic future.

OpenCape has created one of the most advanced and capable fiber optic networks in the country and is now on the verge of making it available to the region. Exactly how it gets used and how it develops over the next few years is largely up to the businesses and citizens of the region.

OpenCape is open access network that can be attached to and used in a wide variety of ways. It is expected that the fiber footprint will expand, but also that people and companies will use multiple technologies, including wireless and copper lines, to best meet local needs, and then connect to OpenCape. It is OpenCape's role to provide the best middle mile network services possible and the people's role to use them to further both their own and the region’s interests.

David vs. Goliath

Both OpenCape and CapeNet have been candid and open in their interactions with Cape Cod Today since we started this series of articles a few weeks ago. They effuse optimism and are proud of the technology they have brought to Cape Cod.

Especially significant in this interview was Mr. Vortherms’ response to our question about Google Fiber. Right now OpenCape/CapeNet competes with Comcast for what most would consider the high end of the market – a tiny corporation and nonprofit, pitted against the Goliath of Comcast. Should Google Fiber enter the Cape market, perhaps riding on the OpenCape network, this might bring fiber optic service down to the level where small businesses and individuals might benefit. Google would be a far more daunting competitor to Comcast, perhaps across the entire broadband landscape – not just at the high end.

Comcast has made it abundantly clear to us both in their virtual interview and in emails with various company officials that they are not prepared to cede business to CapeNet without aggressive competition. Such competition is good for the customer and tends to bring us better services at lower prices.

Verizon was invited to sit for a virtual interview but respectfully declined.

Looking Forward

Few story lines this year have attracted the reader interest that was garnered by this series on OpenCape. Clearly, this is an issue that matters to Cape Cod Today’s readers.

Over the next few weeks we will bring you more information about the unfolding story of the OpenCape network. We have some experts lined up to explain the benefits of high bandwidth access as well as some who will give concrete examples of how a high speed fiber optic network can benefit local governments, schools and other institutions.

If anyone wishes to add their voice to the conversation, please contact editor@capecodtoday.com with your story idea or contribution. We especially welcome IT managers from the Community Anchor Institutions who would like to explain how their organization will use the OpenCape network.

The summer months should be an exciting time for the technologically inclined Cape Codder as OpenCape lights up their network and the serious competition begins.

Take our online Poll here.

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