By Dan Linehan l Contributing Writer
Inside downtown Wilmington’s office towers, fiber-optic cables carry data at nearly the speed of light on strands of glass the width of a human hair. It’s the gold standard in connectivity.
Two Wilmington buildings, 1201 and 1313 N. Market St., recently became the first in the state to be certified by WiredScore, a consulting firm that measures internet connectivity.
“Tenants in 2019 need to be in buildings with access to fiber services because fiber offers the fastest mode of communication,” said Philip Kanfer, senior director of business development in North America for WiredScore, a New York company that rates commercial real estate for connectivity.
The certifications represent the first tangible evidence that building owners are leveraging the state’s heavy investment in fiber-optic cables, including hundreds of miles of new cables and a connection to a major interstate line.
“Now that we have this connectivity, we can blossom and attract tech companies here, given that one of our unique advantages is that people can buy IT equipment without sales tax,” says Sean Meenan, CFO & COO at IPR Secure, a data hosting company based in 1201 Market St.
Thanks largely to its earlier infrastructure investments — it has been a data center since 1988, when that meant rolls and rolls of tape — the Market Street building has become an epicenter of fiber connectivity in the state.
Moreover, these certifications are part of the larger story about how Delaware built a more robust network of high-speed connections: New fiber cable laid in 2014 has improved cell phone service at the beach. Delaware’s electric cooperative now uses fiber-optic cable to communicate with its substations.
These recent leaps forward followed a period when Delaware found itself playing catch-up.
Laying the fiber backbone
It was 2010, and Delaware was starting to fall behind, said Scott D. Johnson, a partner at McConnell Johnson Real Estate, which owns both Market Street buildings.
Pennsylvania was in the midst of a major investment in fiber-optic cables that connected its schools, universities and hospitals. Delaware businesses had few choices for high-speed internet, and site selectors were noticing, he said.
Meanwhile, the business demand for bandwidth was about to “exponentially increase in a short timeframe,”
As the owner of more than a million square feet of downtown Wilmington commercial real estate, McConnell Johnson noticed the lack of options. So they took their case to the state government, which at the time had
an unduly rosy impression of whether these business needs were being met, Johnson said.
The state hadn’t heard complaints from its biggest companies, but that was because they had already installed their own fiber optic cables. These were like private roads that most midsized business couldn’t drive on.
A company called Sunesys had built the Pennsylvania fiber network. They leased individual lines of fiber called “strands” to providers like Comcast, Verizon and smaller companies, who in turn offered the service to businesses.
That capacity — to add lines of fiber that could be leased to multiple providers, spurring competition and lower prices — was what Delaware needed. There were already fiber cables running through northern Delaware connecting major East Coast metro areas, but there were no local connections.
It was like a railroad running through the state with nowhere to get off. Johnson used a poster with the image of tracks running straight through Delaware to illustrate the problem to state officials.
So the state decided to build a depot. The extensive infrastructure at 1201 Market St., added in earlier decades to support its data center, made it a natural choice.
One of its key benefits is redundancy. There are multiple fiber lines running into the building, so if one is accidentally cut, the other takes over. Two electric lines enter the building as well, carrying power from different power substations. There are four massive generators in the basement.
A $4 million state grant was critical in creating that local connection, completed in 2014. The project also included a new fiber-optic line running the length of Delaware, from Wilmington to Georgetown.
“This brought [data] providers into Delaware on a dark fiber route they didn’t have access to before,” Johnson said. (Fiber is called “dark” when it’s installed but unused and “lit” when data is running through it.)
More than a dozen providers now work in Delaware where only a handful once did, helping to drive down prices, Johnson said.
“If we didn’t do it, we’d have lost business left and right,” says Meenan of IPR Secure. “The fact we did do it
is keeping us in the game. It gives us an advantage.”
Download speeds, typically measured in megabits per second (Mbps), are also increasing. Federal regulators only allow the term “broadband” for download speeds at or above 25 Mpbs.
Crown Castle, which laid down its first Delaware fiber in 2005 and now has a network of more than 600 route miles statewide, is investing in speed upgrades here, said Stephen Barnosky, account executive in enterprise fiber. They’re moving from 10 gigabits per second to 100 gigabits per second. At the higher end, that’s 4,000 times as fast as the broadband threshold.
Data connectivity isn’t only important to send emails, stream videos or host websites. It can also help companies operate more efficiently.
Greenwood-based Delaware Electric Cooperative, the state’s second-largest electricity provider, in 2017 paid Lightower Fiber, a fiber network operator, to build a 250-mile ring of fiber in a circle around southern and central Delaware. Crown Castle acquired Lightower in 2017.
The co-op uses fiber to communicate with its two dozen substations and automated monitoring devices. Its employees can track electric loads in real-time at each substation and its automated devices help re-energize power lines to prevent outages, said Jeremy Tucker, the co-op’s manager of marketing and communications.
The far-reaching effects of the state’s fiber investment have also been noticeable to anyone who makes a call
at the beach, Johnson says.
After cell phones transmit a signal to a nearby tower, the calls run underground through a cable made of fiber or another material. When the new fiber between Georgetown and Wilmington was installed, cell phone providers scrambled to lease its strands, boosting their network at the beaches, Johnson said.
Businesses also depend on high-speed connections for daily operations. But figuring out if a building is wired isn’t always obvious.
Making sense of jargon
Tenants know they need fast internet but figuring out if a building has the technology to provide it can be challenging and time-consuming, said Kanfer, of WiredScore.
WiredScore rates buildings on a 100-point scorecard and gives them one of four levels of certification: certified, silver, gold or platinum. The company, which charges landlords for certification by the square foot of their buildings, says it has certified six buildings in Philadelphia and 133 in the Washington, D.C. area.
The certification allows landlords to market the technical capacity of their buildings and position themselves as savvy, high-tech operators, Kanfer says. It also guides their investment in technology and helps them shorten the time it takes to communicate with potential tenants.
“Owners can spend weeks trying to figure out the components of their buildings,” he said, and can use the certification to attract tenants rather than “play defense when these questions arise.”
5G is future’s standard
The next generation of digital connectivity is called 5G (short for fifth generation) and it promises to be a much faster way to move data wirelessly. It achieves these higher speeds by using a different part of the wireless spectrum, though these waves don’t travel as far.
To compensate, buildings will need to have small antennas spread throughout. Johnson said these antennas will start to be installed throughout 1201 Market St. in coming months. The first 5G phones are expected to be released this year.
Meanwhile, as data travels at the speed of light, the pace of work changes.
Stuart Brown, an attorney in DLA Piper’s Wilmington office at 1201 Market St., says connectivity has changed the expectations of clients. He sometimes gets a phone call looking for answers immediately after receiving an email.
“So, as a practicing lawyer, the days of receiving an inquiry and having days to investigate, research and craft an answer are dwindling,” he notes.