D.C. readies new telecom network

"Office of Chief Technology Officer, District Government"

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Roll Call story

Washington, D.C., will activate a citywide emergency response network next month as a result of the federal government's concerns about the city's ability to handle emergencies quickly.

The fiber-optic communications network, called DC-NET, is modeled after similar systems in Portland, Ore., and Chicago, but the Washington, D.C., system is the first built primarily to protect against terrorist threats. The city's efforts to build a free-standing network separate from the public switched network was in the works two years before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but the attacks highlighted the importance of improved emergency communications when Washington, D.C.'s telecommunications system collapsed amid an overload of telephone calls.

"In the D.C. area, we need to be prepared for an attack," said Peter Roy, deputy chief technology officer at the city's Office of the Chief Technology Officer. "Right now we're not. We're working for that."

The new system will allow emergency responders to receive 911 calls faster and will eliminate areas where firefighters' communication systems currently fail, mostly in older buildings with heavy construction and tunnels. In 2001, there were four dozen of these firefighter "dead zones" around the city.

"One of our main reasons for doing this is public safety," said Clay Oliver, project manager for DC-NET. "We want full communications, so one of the first things we did was increase the number of [radio transceiver] towers around the city, and we hooked fiber to 11 transceiver towers. Fire and police department equipment should now receive clear signals all over the city."

Washington, D.C., has also installed enhanced 911 routers that will accelerate the response to calls. Calls sent to the routers will immediately be transferred to a public safety call taker. A 911 call that ordinarily took five to 12 seconds to reach a dispatcher will now be connected in less than one second, officials said.

Overall, the DC-NET fiber optics will connect to more than 300 buildings in the city, including government offices, data centers, police and fire departments, hospitals, and schools. The network will provide voice and data services. Because the fiber replaces old multifrequency technology, new networks will be 1,600 times faster than before, providing such things as faster Internet and video connections, officials said.

"A big benefit here is helping to bridge the digital divide in the District," said Linda Argo, chief of staff with the Office of the Chief Technology Officer.

Officials will activate DC-NET in August. The goal is to have three-quarters of the buildings on the network by the end of the year. The project will be completed in the summer of 2004 and is then expected to carry 90 percent of Washington, D.C.'s official telecommunications business traffic.

Comcast Corp. provided the backbone for the network, which the city will own and operate. The city has $66 million in funding this year for the project. Its total cost is expected to be $93 million. When deployed, DC-NET is expected to save Washington, D.C., $10 million a year.

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