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York telecom's fiber-optic line travels under Hudson River

Written by Mark Walters/York Daily Record | Feb 21, 2016 6:46 AM
UDS_fiber_internet.jpg

United Fiber & Data's fiber-optic line runs into a manhole in Weehawken, New Jersey. Above ground, contractors used an air compressor to blow that tube through a slightly larger one that traveled 5,000 feet under the Hudson River to Midtown Manhattan. Ed Pagliarini, For the York Daily Record

United Fiber & Data celebrated 800 strands of fiber being installed under the Hudson River on Thursday, connecting the telecom company's fiber-optic line from New York to Weehawken, New Jersey.

(Undate) -- On the western shore of the Hudson River on Thursday, executives of an emerging York telecom company soaked in a moment they say is a big step toward changing how the Internet works for businesses and residents along the East Coast.

That change, they say, will happen through 864 strands of fiber-optic cable slated to run through York, from New York City to Ashburn, Virginia.

United Fiber & Data employees and executives crowded around two open manholes in Weehawken, New Jersey, barely big enough for a human to enter, watching workers unreel a spool of a plastic-covered tube into a steel pipe. Above ground, contractors used an air compressor to blow that tube through a slightly larger one that traveled 5,000 feet under the Hudson River to Midtown Manhattan.

Once completed, data customers in York and elsewhere around rural Pennsylvania could have access to Internet speeds 100 times faster than they have now. And, company officials say, businesses would be attracted by the ultra high-speed Internet.

The fiber optic project has been in the works since 2009, when the company began securing rights of way and legal approvals to become a public utility in five states. And the project hasn't been without its challenges.

Patrick Dahlheimer, bassist for the band Live and one of UFD's co-investors, joined his bandmates Chad Taylor and Chad Gracey, company executives and employees in Weehawken on Thursday to watch Hylan Datacom & Electrical feed the fiber line from New Jersey to New York, connecting to the nearly 25 miles of operational fiber in Manhattan.

As fiber traveled under the river, a roughly two-hour process, some of those gathered shook hands and patted each other on the back. Some held up cellphones to photograph and record the event described by one as the company's version of a groundbreaking.

"It came to us as a business investment," Dahlheimer said. "We vetted it and it seemed risky. But here we are. We took a big bite out of this."

After walking away from the work site, Bill Hynes, UFD chief executive and founder, fired up his Mercedes Benz and turned on his satellite radio. Live's hit, "Selling the Drama," was playing.

"Can you believe this?" he yelled to Taylor, guitarist for the band, and Dahlheimer after he rolled down his windows and cranked the volume.

Investing in telecommunications

Businesses in Manhattan could someday have offices in York, Hynes said during the fiber installation. And that's what he is most excited about.

"It's a cold day, but it's a bright day for York," he said.

Slated to pass through a 16-inch pipe owned by Hudson River Crossing LLC, work on the fiber line was delayed when UFD had to catch up on its lease payments.

The New Jersey company filed a civil claim to get the money. The two companies settled out of court, and Hudson River Crossing member Robert Cannon joined UFD officials at the site Thursday. If there had still been a problem, Cannon said, he would not have been smiling on the job site.

UFD is one of several telecom companies leasing space in Hudson River Crossing's pipe, which runs 55 feet below the river channel's surface, Cannon said. The pipe can accommodate 37 fiber lines, he said.

Hynes insisted the civil claim is in the past. It involved a minor misunderstanding, said Hudson River Crossing sales and marketing director Richard Coghlan on Friday. And Hynes shrugged off a civil suit with PEG Bandwidth -- a financial dispute that was settled with undisclosed terms in York County Court of Common Pleas. Hynes said he is prohibited from discussing specifics about a current customer, saying only that UFD and PEG Bandwidth have a great relationship after they "agreed to disagree and then agreed on other terms."

"We've had hiccups, we made our mistakes," Hynes said. "But we're past that. That's just business in America."

Hynes pointed over a snow bank and toward the Empire State Building and Freedom Tower, pillars of the New York City skyline. The fiber line being installed near the Lincoln Tunnel, he said, will ultimately connect the financial epicenter of the world to York.

Building a new network

Even though thousands of fiber lines exist between New York City and Ashburn, they run primarily along the I-95 corridor. And those fiber lines can fail, which makes for slower-than-desired Internet connectivity.

Most Internet providers have fiber lines starting in major cities, such as New York, and eventually wind up in the back of your router at home. Some still use coaxial lines, which are thicker, heavier and less reliable. Think of a car's obsolete cassette deck.

When you're sitting at work and complaining about lagging Internet speeds, it's often the fault of a failure along a major fiber line, Taylor explained.

Borrowing a pen and tablet, Taylor quickly drew a makeshift map, depicting how a data failure between New York and Virginia lags. Information is re-routed from New York City through Canada, around to Pittsburgh and down to Ashburn.

Most of the East Coast's Internet, as it is provided to customers, exists in New York and Ashburn, but overcrowded pathways on a similar route slow things down. A disaster, such as Hurricane Sandy or the Sept. 11 attacks, could cripple companies' data storage.

Data transmission is much like water flowing from garden hoses, said Christopher Lodge, UFD president and chief operating officer. Sixteen garden hoses flowing into one hose would get backed up compared to flowing those 16 hoses into a 24-inch water main.

Or, think of emails as millions of data packets going from one device to another, Lodge said. The packets need to be sent quickly because data networks don't want traffic jams. They pass the packets like hot potatoes.

UFD's fiber is expected to pull a substantial amount of Internet traffic from the I-95 corridor to its alternate route, which would also serve as a backup data connection when other lines fail.

When it reaches Virginia, the data line that UFD is still building would connect the two East Coast Internet hotbeds.

UFD's fiber will head south in a few weeks, toward Jersey City, Lodge said. It is expected to cross the Delaware River in August, said Hynes of the next big river crossing that is "not as sexy." Crossing the Hudson had more significance because it announces to the world that UFD is on the march, he said. A full build-out is anticipated by the end of the year.

The line will connect smaller cities in Pennsylvania, offering potential connections to boost Internet speeds in rural areas.

Major cities in the United States were established because of their proximity to river ports, Taylor said. This data line will make York a "river port," he said, by connecting it to faster, more reliable Internet.

People think they have Internet, and they are connected, Hynes explained. But compared to what would be available on this line, today's typical data speeds are like dial-up speeds, he said.

After his diagram-backed explanation, Taylor said building stronger Internet can help businesses in York to flourish.

"I'm just a hometown guy trying to build jobs in York," he said "York is set up to go, it just needs an accelerant."

*This article is part of a content-sharing agreement between WITF and the York Daily Record.

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