Street Work Beefs Up Dtown Fiber

May 23, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Although it may look like just another dusty street dig, the city’s reconstruction of Fountain Street will end up improving telecommunication and IT services for downtown businesses when the work is completed in August.

Connecting two portions of the underground telecom conduit system is part of that project, which will allow for more downtown cables to be tied into the SBC building on the northeast corner of Division and Fountain.

Doing that will give Grand Rapids Community College, Grand Valley State University, Spectrum Health, the Van Andel Research Institute and others in the northeast nook of downtown the ability to install, upgrade or expand their own systems.

But more importantly, the work on Fountain is one piece of the city’s “Smart Street” concept, an effort that has been going on for the better part of a decade and one in which the Downtown Development Authority has been a major player and payer.

“We’ve buried new conduits throughout downtown. There is actually a whole system, and the Fountain piece is a critical part of that,” said DDA Executive Director Jay Fowler.

“That is why the DDA put money into (the Fountain project), because it supports the conduit system throughout downtown which provides access for building owners and businesses to multiple IT and telecom services that are important,” he added.

The DDA felt these services are so vital for an economically vibrant downtown that when board members agreed to partially fund the work along Fountain Street last month, they did so knowing that part of the project is outside of their district. Seldom has the DDA provided funding for any type of work that exceeds its borders, but Smart Street has been an ongoing pet project for the board.

“It’s been at least 10 years, and for every one of the streets we’ve rebuilt downtown — of which there are a lot — we’ve included an underground conduit system that serves to provide access to IT and telecommunication services for every building along a street,” said Fowler.

When this work began, SBC — once known as Ameritech and Michigan Bell — was the sole telecom provider for downtown. The city, however, owned a few conduits then and began renting space on its cables to other providers, a move that brought competition to downtown for that business. But the city’s system wasn’t all that inclusive back then, and new providers found it difficult to serve all of downtown.

“It was a cobbled together mess, really, 10 years ago. There is now quite a comprehensive system of conduits under the streets downtown that provide access to many of the buildings and give the building owners or business owners a choice of who they want to buy their IT and communication services from,” said Fowler, who added that the city’s Traffic Safety Department coordinates the conduit work.

Expanding the telecom conduits along Fountain is costing the city $41,500, a tab being split between the DDA and the city’s Street Lighting Division. Authorizing $20,750 to the project isn’t, by itself, a major expense for the board. In the grand scheme of things, however, it’s a nice chunk of change that can be added to the previous funds that board members have spent on this type of work and the money that they will be spending in the coming years to wire all downtown streets. Still, the Fountain Street work is a key piece if the virtual puzzle is ever to be completed.

“It’s an important link, because ultimately most telecommunications services end up having to get to the SBC building because of the way all long distance services end up there,” said Fowler.

“So this link on Fountain Street ties the rest of downtown into the SBC building. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t other work to be done.”

For its part, SBC has finished its duct bank along Pearl Street from Ionia to Division avenues.

“I think the DDA’s interest in this is to make sure that downtown businesses have access to all the modern services,” said Fowler. “This really updates the infrastructure of downtown as necessary to make downtown a competitive place to do business.”    

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