• United States

D.C. builds high-speed network

Feb 23, 20045 mins

Faced with emergencies from terrorism threats to ice storms, Washington, D.C., is spending $93 million to build a high-speed, citywide public safety network that industry observers say is one of the most advanced of its kind.

DC-Net is a private, fiber-optic network that will provide data, video and voice services to 350 buildings, including police and fire stations, city offices and schools. Washington’s main government buildings will be hooked up to DC-Net’s 2.5G bit/sec backbone this summer.

Avaya and Cisco are providing network hardware for DC-Net, while MCI is the service provider. Systems integrator Science Applications International will operate DC-Net’s two network operations centers.

Washington is unique because it “has to provide first responder capability for the entire federal government,” says Peter Roy, the city’s deputy CTO. “DC-Net is the most advanced metropolitan-area network of its kind.”

“To see a project of this scale in local government is pretty extraordinary,” says Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president of consulting at Federal Sources, a Vienna, Va., firm that tracks state and local government spending on IT projects.

DC-Net is “recognition of the district’s mission in homeland security,” Bjorklund adds. “There’s a statutory requirement that every agency have a presence in the district. The district has a very special role as the federal city and needs to protect the spaces between the federal locations.”

The infrastructure

DC-Net consists of several OC-48 SONET rings, which promise no single point of failure. DC-Net will offer 99.98% availability, thanks to SONET’s self-healing capabilities. As a carrier-grade technology, SONET ensures that DC-Net’s traffic can be re-routed within 50 millisec in the event of a cut in the system.

“We chose SONET technology because it’s proven and it has been around for a while,” Roy says. “We’re dealing with mission-critical applications, and we want proven technology.”

To build DC-Net, the government bought fiber from Comcast, Level 3 Communications and Starpower, and laid some fiber-optic lines of its own to create the citywide network footprint it needed.

DC-Net’s infrastructure uses Cisco’s optical provisioning platforms, routers and switches. Avaya is providing PBXs that support ISDN handsets the district government bought years ago.

“We didn’t go with [VoIP] because we already had 50,000 ISDN handsets . . . and we can’t afford to throw them out,” Roy says. “Down the road, maybe we’ll go to VoIP but not until the technology is proven.”

DC-Net is using many network management platforms, including HP OpenView, and software from Hummingbird, InfoVista, Micromuse and Remedy.

The network will support lots of emerging and legacy network protocols, including Ethernet, frame relay, ISDN, Multi-protocol Label Switching, Switched Multimegabit Data Service, TCP/IP and TDM.

All data and voice traffic from all the city’s agencies will ride over DC-Net. The network’s traffic will include 911 emergency calls to real-time interactive video for the public school system.

The city’s new backbone even will carry the data from industrial automation systems for applications such as traffic light monitoring. Ultimately, Washington officials envision offering a Web site where citizens can watch the progress of snowplows through city streets, thanks to data gathered and sent via DC-Net.

“DC-Net is truly integrating every flow of electrons through the D.C. government,” Bjorklund says. “That’s very significant and very big. I don’t know of anybody else who is building such an integrated network on this scale.”

Before building DC-Net, the city had a hodgepodge of T-1 and T-3 lines leased by various departments. The city’s police, fire, health and education departments ran their own networks with services leased from Verizon. Now all of these agencies will use the DC-Net backbone.

“The No. 1 reason we’re building DC-Net is to have a reliable and available infrastructure for public safety communications, both data and voice,” Roy says.

Big savings

By consolidating its data and voice traffic, the government expects to rack up significant savings. Washington currently spends $30 million per year on data and voice services from Verizon. By switching this traffic to DC-Net, the city expects to save $10 million a year in telecom costs.

“The savings start at cutover, in early 2004, as soon as we put up a few of the high-profile buildings,” Roy says.

The district plans to create a separate legislative entity that will sell DC-Net services to select organizations, such as the city’s new convention center, similar to how it sells water and sewage services to some private organizations. “But we’re not going into the phone business,” Roy adds.

For most citizens, the biggest benefit of DC-Net is likely to be improved 911 response rates. The district government has been criticized for its poor 911 system. Now it will be one of the first cities in the country to route 911 calls over its own network. This will give the city more control over tracking these calls from the minute they enter the system until emergency services are dispatched, Roy says.

The government expects to have its core downtown city government buildings – including its two data centers – on DC-Net by June. Eighty buildings will be connected by the end of September. DC-Net will support more than 30,000 users.

“We expect to have 80% of the D.C. government on DC-Net by the end of 2004,” Roy says.

First the city’s data traffic and then its voice traffic will be moved to DC-Net. Migrating voice traffic to DC-Net “is where the money is,” Roy says.

The district government has two network projects underway. The first is building a new Unified Communications Center for handling 911 calls. The other is building a private, high-speed wireless data network for public safety communications. DC-Net will support both of these.