Building a fiber highway: Southern Tier Network spurring growth
A three-year, $12.2 million project to build an open-access optical fiber ring in Steuben, Chemung and Schuyler counties was finished this spring.
Known as the Southern Tier Network, it’s a 235-mile-long fiber “backbone” built to carry data, Internet, phone or television at tremendous speed with virtually unlimited capacity.
And it has big implications for the region, two key players in the project - Steve Manning and Marcia Weber - told The Leader in a recent interview.
Manning is CEO of the Southern Tier Network, the non-profit board that oversees the fiber ring.
Weber is executive director of the Southern Tier Central Regional Planning and Economic Development Board, which has assisted with the project.
The network was built to provide fiber to municipal governments, colleges and school districts, and health care providers, Manning and Weber said. It can also be used by telecommunications companies to bring fiber to rural areas. And it will hopefully help in recruiting new companies to the area, they say.
After years in the conceptual phase, Southern Tier Network was launched in 2011 as a joint effort by Southern Tier Central, Corning Inc., and Steuben, Chemung and Schuyler counties.
Corning Inc. provided $10 million, and its fiber was used for the network. The three counties chipped in about $2.2 million. The staff at Southern Tier Central served as consultants. ECC Technologies was the construction manager, and Todd Cable handled the installation. The fiber was mostly installed along existing phone/cable poles.
For a long time, much of this area was a “black hole” when it came to fiber, Weber said. There was a limited amount of fiber, owned by a few telecommunications companies.
But now that it’s built, anyone can tap into the Southern Tier Network, which is referred to as “dark” fiber. Customers need to install equipment in their buildings to “light” the fiber.
The three counties are using it for their emergency management towers.
Guthrie Health is using it to link their hospitals and clinics.
The Corning-Painted Post school district and other local districts have tied the fiber into their schools.
A telecommunications company called Empire Access is using the infrastructure to bring fiber to homes and businesses in the Bath-Hammondsport area. And that’s a key aspect of the Southern Tier Network.
It’s not cost-effective for telecommunications companies to install their own fiber in rural areas where there’s not many customers. But the companies can “ride” the Southern Tier Network to get to new areas, then branch off from there, Manning explained.
“We’re really building the highway,” Manning said. “We’re providing a conduit for companies to reach areas where they don’t have the infrastructure.”
In the end, that’s going to bring more telecommunications companies into the area, creating more competition and driving down prices, Manning added. The network can also be used to support 4G wireless service.
The Southern Tier Network was also mapped out to bring fiber to potential sites for new businesses, such as the undeveloped Steuben County Industrial Park on State Route 54 in Bath.
Fiber is a “feather in your cap” in trying to lure new companies to the area, or getting existing ones to expand, said Jamie Johnson, executive director of the Steuben County Development Agency.
“Ten years ago, telecommunications was almost an afterthought,” Johnson said. “They’d ask questions about water, sewer, gas, highways, zoning - then they’d get the building halfway up and then say, ‘Oh by the way, we need a T1 line.’ That’s changed, to the point where telecommunications now is one of the first things they ask about.”
“We’re all wired, and we share a lot of information, so having the capacity to handle that is critical to development efforts,” he added.
While the 235-mile-long main portion of the Southern Tier Network is now finished, it is expected to keep growing. Another 30 miles of lateral off-shoots have already been added, and it will keep being expanded to connect with new sites.
Since the Southern Tier Network a non-profit, fees charged to users will go toward maintaining and expanding the network.
Funded by a $5 million state economic development grant announced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in December, the Southern Tier Network will soon be expanded into Allegany, Tioga, Broome and Tompkins counties, including connections to Alfred University, Binghamton University and Cornell University.
It already connects with another similar open-access fiber ring in Ontario County to the north, and with a still-under-construction network in Yates County.