Economic Development and Technology

Internet provider turns to the ‘dark’ side

September 8, 2017
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Dark Fiber may sound like a plot element in a science fiction story, but it’s very real and becoming a preferred method of internet connectivity for businesses in Michigan.

The term “dark fiber” refers to the unused fiber strands inside a cable that typically aren’t connected to a telecommunication company. These fibers are instead leased to private businesses that need connectivity between two endpoints to activate the fiber.

123Net, a Southfield-based data service, which has data centers in Southfield and Grand Rapids, says it is the first internet service provider in Michigan to offer dark fiber connectivity as a service to clients.

“Oftentimes, carriers including ourselves are delivering lit fiber,” said Chuck Irvin, director of network development for 123Net. “If something is lit, that means something is being delivered over that fiber.”

In a traditional network, data providers control which fibers are lit and providing network connectivity to clients. Giving clients and businesses access to dark fiber allows them further control with their network data usage, he said. A dark fiber network gives businesses the ability to switch whichever fibers in the network on and off depending on their connectivity needs. This gives them nearly limitless bandwidth, as well as the ability to customize their security.

Irvin said ideal candidates for dark fiber usage would be businesses that have several different facilities that need to be interconnected, like hospitals, universities or manufacturing campuses, as well as marketing and IT companies. Dark fiber also is useful in large apartment or office buildings that have many individual users sharing connectivity.

Designs for a dark fiber network start with a single pair of fiber and can be configured in either a point-to-point or a ring configuration. A ring configuration could serve to safeguard against any unforeseen interruptions in the network, as all devices in the network are interconnected in a ring of fiber, he said. This is a useful option for companies with mission-critical connectivity needs.

“In a ring configuration, if you cut the ring at any point, the connection would just continue to the other end of the ring,” Irvin explained. “It’s useful if a tree falls down and cuts the ring because it won’t disrupt the connection.”

Irvin argued other companies don’t sell dark fiber because it’s part of their own infrastructure, and handing that control over to private businesses can limit their sales potential. A business doesn’t need to purchase additional services once it has a dark fiber network installed, he said, because that network is fully customizable, even as the company grows.

But the tradeoff, as Irvin sees it, is building customer loyalty.

“Once you get dark fiber, there’s no reason to leave and pursue another solution,” he said. “As the internet continues to grow and customers’ needs continue to grow, dark fiber will meet them. IT companies tend to be smarter in how they purchase their connectivity.”

Dark fiber still is a fairly new phenomenon. 123Net only started offering the service in 2014, but it has since installed dark fiber for several different companies just in Grand Rapids, Irvin said.

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