Oct 07 2016

How Cape Cod Solved Its Unique Internet Connectivity Woes

Challenged with specific environmental limitations, the residents of this iconic stretch of New England built its own middle mile network.

Cape Cod, Mass., is most famous as the annual summer destination for millions of tourists, including the rich and famous. That high-profile status, however, didn’t translate into top-of-the-line network connectivity, largely because of the region’s harsh, isolated marine environment.

Ten years ago, though, Cape Cod’s 230,000 permanent residents began clamoring for more than the slow, limited internet service provided by local cable and phone companies.

That spawned the creation of OpenCape, a nonprofit organization that raised $40 million from federal, state and local grants, as well as private investment, to build a 350-mile fiber optic “middle mile” network. It runs from the cape’s northernmost settlement of Provincetown to Woods Hole on the southern end, over to the Massachusetts mainland and out to the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.

Critical to the build were resiliency and redundancy. “We jut out into the ocean and we’re just two feet above sea level, so if a hurricane swept through and took down 300 or 400 poles, we needed a way for first responders and county officials to still communicate,” says Steve Johnston, OpenCape’s executive director.

Getting OpenCape's Network Up and Running

To ensure maximum uptime, OpenCape officials took a two-pronged approach: They built the network using a fiber ring technology and redundant connections through Boston and Providence, R.I., and also built a backup network using microwave towers located on more hardened, storm-resistant structures. “We have never had downtime since we started operating,” says Johnston.

Already, the network connects more than 100 sites, including schools, government agencies and first responders, but there is a lot more to do in terms of getting all areas on board and providing last-mile connectivity. Now, says Johnston, OpenCape is focused on adding lateral connections out from the backbone and bringing on even more towns and enterprises.

“We’d like to see a little more aggressive utilization of our fiber, so communication is really the mainstay of what I do now,” Johnston says, explaining that his organization works with local towns and municipalities, state agencies, the governor’s office and anchor institutions. “We are constantly reaching out to make sure that people are aware of what we’re doing.”

Taming the Network Build

To overcome the unique challenges of crafting a network that will connect vast territory or work effectively under less than ideal conditions, state and local agencies need to incorporate the following best practices:

  • Prioritize: The network built along the Dalton Highway in Alaska has state-of-the-art capabilities and was designed to expand, but for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, the focus that supersedes everything is reliable, redundant voice communications. “For us, it’s all about enabling life safety,” says William J. Russell, the agency’s superintendent for operations and maintenance in the Dalton District. “If somebody gets into trouble, anytime, anywhere, I want them to be able to call for help and have that network light up so everybody can hear it and work together to get the fastest, most effective response.”

  • Measure: To quantify and target pockets of demand across the Cape Cod region, OpenCape utilized a tool called CrowdFiber. “Now, instead of every single community spending money to conduct a use study, residents and visitors can come onto the site and let us know what their need or interest is in service and we can get a pretty good idea of what and where demand is,” says Executive Director Steve Johnston. “Fiber works when you can connect entire communities, so this tool helps us find out exactly where we can do that.”

  • Coordinate: Cost-effective networks aren’t accomplished in isolation, says David Asp, network collaboration engineer for the Dakota County, Minn., IT department. To keep others informed, he and his team built a software program called the “One-Stop Roadway Permit Shop.” The program alerts other agencies if one agency requests a permit to work in a specific location, making it easier for those with a common interest to work together. Asp notes that this not only supports the “dig once” strategy, but also saves about $4,000 per agency in permitting costs.

To learn more about how state and local governments are innovating with networking technologies, read "In Tough Terrain, State and County Officials Get Creative to Extend Networks."


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