Road to fiber future is paved with gridlock

America's biggest infrastructure project since the Interstate Highway System is burrowing beneath US streets, promising a future of cheap and instantaneous communication.

But above ground, in the here and now, the rush to wire America with fiber-optic cable has unleashed mainly a torrent of noise, dust, and chewed-up roads.

From the Puget Sound to the Potomac, the road to a broadband, light-fast future is tangled in gridlock:

*In tech-heavy Seattle, so many companies have run cables that they are running out of room underneath many downtown streets.

*In Los Angeles, a rush to complete projects before this summer's Democratic Convention has ground downtown traffic nearly to a halt.

*In Philadelphia, crews doing work at night (to avoid disrupting traffic) create their own set of problems. "We get a number of complaints about jackhammering at night," says John Anselmo of the Philadelphia Streets Department.

The new lines, using beams of light to transmit 65,000 times the data of traditional copper wires, are seen as the backbone of the Information Age.

But with progress comes problems - in this case, lots of them. To install the lines under a road, crews typically must dig a 6-inch-wide, 18-inch-deep trench, blocking off a lane or two in the process.

It is a truly massive undertaking. By one estimate, 140 million miles of cable have already been installed worldwide, representing an investment of hundreds of billions of dollars. Billions more will be invested as new cable is installed.

This prompts some observers to liken America's fiber-optic wiring to past projects of vast scope, including the highway system begun in the 1950s and the running of electrical lines in the early 1900s.

"It's the same kind of project, in that it links people together. Instead of linking people with highways, it's with light. But it's the same kind of geographical challenge," says Howard Janzen, chief executive of Williams Communications in Tulsa, Okla., which is laying a $5 billion fiber network.

But where high-tech visionaries see light, residents of some cities see a dark side. Literally.

When Santiago Siquina, a porter in Washington, hosed down the sidewalk in front of the National Soft Drink Association headquarters in recent months, the runoff was a black greasy ooze.

The reason: dust and asphalt kicked up by cable installation on L Street, just outside the office. The runoff was darker, he says, than any soda made by the tenants upstairs.

"It was just ridiculous what they were doing out there," complains Dan New, who heads security in Mr. Siquina's building.

Fiber lines have been in place between major cities for years. But since a 1996 telecommunications law, the next phase has begun: installing the lines within cities, allowing cheaper and more reliable television, phone, and computer connections.

Benefits of the cables are felt already. For example, they're the reason for plummeting long-distance phone rates, notes Martin Weiss, a telecommunications professor at the University of Pittsburgh. They also allow high-speed Internet connections.

Moreover, the lines are integral to bringing so-called broadband high-speed Internet access, which would ultimately allow transmission of high-quality, real-time audio and video over computers.

"Your copper wire right now cannot give you voice, data, and video at high speeds. Fiber-optic line can give you all three at very high speeds," says Darrell Williams of the Telecommunications Development Fund, a venture capital firm in Washington. "What you're doing is building the infrastructure to bring any media to anybody, anywhere."

Perhaps no city has been more affected by the cable-laying frenzy than the nation's capital, where the gridlock for once can't be blamed on the White House and Congress. A technology boom, combined with questionable city policy (companies wishing to block traffic weren't regulated tightly or charged significant fees) tied up downtown traffic for much of the past year.

It got so bad that Mayor Anthony Williams imposed a moratorium on all digging of trenches in city streets on March 27. Most every Washingtonian, it seems, has a complaint. "It would take me 40 minutes to get from downtown to Georgetown," complains veteran D.C. cab driver Tony Eky, of a drive that should normally take 10 minutes. "And it cost me money. People would just get out and walk."

"It slowed my business down," says Aminata Phillips, who operates a hot-dog and snack stand at the corner of 16th and L Streets downtown. "There was a lot of dust, and the noise was horrible, especially when they were digging. It was just a mess."

This, say those who build the networks, is the price of progress.

But the price may be getting lower. Stung by complaints of traffic problems, some cities are experimenting with other ways to wire for the Internet age. In New York, for example, there are plans to put the cable in unused water mains. "It avoids a lot more digging that would have had to go on in the future," says Allan Dobrin, commissioner of the city's Department of Information Technology and Communications.

Other alternative approaches include running cable through sewer lines or along commuter rail tracks, says Mr. Williams, the venture capitalist.

And, if traffic snarls are the price of advancement, "I understand the need for it," says Mr. New, the Washington security worker. "But it seems like they could do it in a less-intrusive way."

* Daphne Eviatar in New York contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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